Staying relevant in the post-COVID era

May 27, 2020

Katie Castillo-Wilson

Katie Castillo-Wilson

TapOnIt Founder + CEO

Brand Exposure

It’s no secret the coronavirus pandemic has been hard on restaurants. The restrictions and mandatory protocols have changed the food and beverage industry on all levels. Whether you’re a big player like McDonalds, or a local family-run joint, COVID-19 has turned the restaurant business into a pressure cooker. 

But this virus and its effects don’t have to result in irrelevance for your business. There are ways to weather the drought, as well as ways to set your business up for success once the economy is ready to recover. This article isn’t meant to be an exhaustive roadmap to restaurant success through a pandemic, because none of us have navigated this kind of disruption before. Rather think of it as a list of thought starters or areas of focus meant to give you a head start as you customize and personalize your communications, your responses and your pivots through the crisis.

1. If you’re open, let people know you’re open

Many consumers are operating under the assumption that everything other than essential services is closed—and that includes their favorite restaurants. Americans are consuming news from all over the country, as well as from all over the world. Restrictions and protocols aren’t uniform; they vary from region to region. The lines are blurry. And oftentimes, consumers aren’t clear on the difference between restrictions and considerations. So be clear about how your restaurant is operating. 

Following the 2008-2009 economic recession, marketing effectiveness expert Peter Field published a study that found brands who used ESOV (excess share of voice) during the crisis tended to recover the fastest, as well as gained more market share because of their brand-building efforts during the financial crisis. Don’t be afraid to use your voice— your brand should speak up and be heard. 

Here’s a rule of thumb: if you haven’t outright told consumers you’re open for business, then assume they believe you’re closed. 

2. Be transparent with consumers, and proactive with safety

Most consumers are fearful and confused about the proper way to interact right now. Not only with your restaurant, but with other people in general. Put their worries at ease by addressing their concerns before the concerns arise. Show customers what your business is doing to prioritize their safety, and bolster consumer trust. And show customers what your business is doing to prioritize the safety of your employees, to demonstrate responsibility. 

Ensure that your safety and cleaning efforts are tastefully on display. It could be something as simple as tape on the floor, plexiglass partitions to protect your staff, or something more obvious like a hand sanitizing station or cleaning products within view. 

Not all customers will care. But for the ones who do, the extra care around safety may be a differentiator, and may establish preference over the other restaurants that are open at this time.

3. Be part of the community

Remember, consumers are more attracted to strength than desperation. Your business shouldn’t plead for customers, instead your business should focus on excellence. Earn the attention of your customers—and their affinity—by supporting the community(ies) that you operate in. Perhaps you give back to a local food bank, provide support to your furloughed staff, or create a special promotion for those frontline workers.

Panera Bread has done a tremendous job of supporting their communities. While the company has upped their sanitation protocols, implemented a delivery service and has extended expiration dates on its Panera rewards program, it didn’t stop there. Panera opened its kitchens and resources to help the #ChefsForAmerica campaign, which provides meals to families across the country. 

This support was also extended to Panera employees. The company implemented an emergency sick pay policy, which ensures their staff are able to stay home and rest if they are sick or test positive for COVID-19. Once a week, Panera staff will be provided with a weekly meal in all Panera-owned cafes. Lastly, Panera’s Friends in Knead COVID-19 Relief Fund was created to provide financial support to eligible employees. Panera LLC donated $500,000 to the cause, but the fund is primarily funded by voluntary donations from Panera staff. 

And take this one last tip from Panera: be vocal about how you’re helping your community, but remain humble.

4. Be a human

COVID-19 is a human crisis. No one cares about your brand in the same way they care about their family and neighbors. So, engage with your customers in the most human way possible. 

Keep an eye out for opportunities to demonstrate the human side of your restaurant. Use video to talk to customers on social media platforms, or on your website, or through any PR efforts. Don’t hesitate to show customers who you are as the owner, who your employees are, as well as how your staff is engaging with their families during this time. Even a video where you interview and/or interact with a customer will demonstrate the humanity within your brand.

Humans aren’t transactional—express gratitude, and talk and listen frequently to your employees and consumers. Remember to think like a human and not like a business owner and let that map out your restaurant’s next steps.