Connecting restaurants to their customers in the digital age

Connecting restaurants to their customers in the digital age

Many restaurant brands have had a harder time staying connected with their customers in recent years.

For over two decades, consumers increasingly moved to the digital space. Then, the forced isolation of the pandemic exacerbated that trend as diners who previously sought the social and experiential aspects of dining out adapted to eating in their homes more than they had in many years. Even now that we’re transitioning back to public spaces, people and their behaviors have evolved. This shift, combined with an increasing number of options, a surge in demand for personalization, and a new generation of diners with an expanded view of community, creates a marketing and communications challenge that’s difficult for brands of all types—but one that is particularly hard for those that rely on in-person contact, like restaurants.

That challenge isn’t going away. Brands need to adapt along with their consumers and reach customers in new ways, including with more and better user benefits and loyalty rewards. The best way for restaurant brands to succeed is to meet customers where they already are: online.

Digital presence starts with data

Cultivating deep relationships between your customers and brand digitally via reward programs and customer loyalty initiatives isn’t easy even for digitally mature organizations, but many restaurant brands need to address gaps in their digital presence before they can even think about beginning to meet their customers’ evolving needs and wants. To thrive in the new world of dining habits, restaurants must assess their digital readiness, optimize their transformation, and embrace a sustainable, long-term digital presence. But how?

First, restaurant brands need to start by looking at and optimizing their data—and if they don’t have any data, it’s imperative they begin to gather it, especially now that third-party cookies are a thing of the past. Insights gleaned from customer data tell the story of consumer expectations, wants, and needs, which creates a path toward providing the personalized experience customers crave. From there, restaurant brands can get creative to meet the unique desires of their customers.

There are best practices that restaurant brands can follow as they look to optimize their digital transformation. To meet the demands of digitally savvy customers, restaurants must consistently engage them in meaningful ways. That requires capturing and acting on consumers’ contextualized data, delivering experiences that elicit deep, emotional responses, and showing the intentionality and authenticity that appeals to the Gen Z consumers emerging as change agents in the market. Direct-to-consumer connections via digital interactions persist as customer expectations rise and digital adoption continues its meteoric acceleration.

With so many options now available for consumers, connection is more important than ever. But not all consumers are alike in their wants and needs. That’s where more advanced digital tools like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and predictive analytics come into play. These tools allow restaurant brands to reward their customers in a way that feels personal but remains scalable on the back end. That personalization can strengthen the connection that consumers feel with a brand—consistently delivering relevant content and offers along every step of the customer journey leads to brand advocacy, emotional loyalty, and greater participation through a shared identity with your brand.

Some strategies, like incorporating a dynamic loyalty program as a part of their engagement efforts, are good for restaurants across price points and food types. But some customer interactions vary across the different restaurant tiers. For quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, this means not just continuing to offer features rolled out during the pandemic—like in-app ordering, delivery, curbside pickup, and flexible payment options— but also creating imaginative and innovative ways to deliver tailored customer experiences. For fine dining, expectations are even higher as consumers are influenced by social media and influencers, and increasingly seek full dining experiences that hold a certain ambiance while providing flexible, accessible, and smooth customer service.

Future-proofing the food industry

Altogether, restaurant brands need to reliably give value at every point on a customer’s journey, exceeding expectations and evolving alongside their consumers.

It’s a process that’s easier said than done. Customer demands change quickly, so as restaurants accelerate their digital presence, how can they be sure they are connecting with consumers in relevant ways?

Brand-to-customer relationships rely on the same things human-to-human relationships do: listening, adapting, and responding. Brand relationships also need to be innovative and agile as customer behavior evolves at break-neck speed. Innovation is the key to continue delivering experiences that don’t just keep customers coming back but also establish a brand as part of their identity as a consumer.  Agility, in turn, is the backbone of innovation.

Brands should look to strategically employ modern tools to access and leverage data, continually adapting their loyalty programs and customer experience strategies. Even further, brands should take on a responsive approach, using digital channels and communications to meet their customers where they are. Responding to them in real-time and on a human level ensures a restaurant brand’s relevancy by creating the best-in-class personalization that each individual customer expects and deserves.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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Meet the author
  1. Tom Madden, Managing Partner, Loyalty and CRM

    Tom has more than 25 years of experience helping brands achieve their loyalty marketing and CRM goals View bio

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