QSR Brands Should Build Emotional Engagement

For QSR brands a menu of disruption, digital and dazzle with illustration of fast food
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The following article by Mingthoy Sanjur, senior strategist; Jeremy Cline, manager, innovation and data; and Bret Smith, managing director, strategy and insights at VMLY&R, was published by WARC. 

The fast food and QSR industry is traditionally known as the home of the dine-in and drive-thru. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone, especially in America, who hasn’t hungrily stared at a menu through a car window or sat with friends and family in a heavily-branded restaurant enjoying a delicious meal. Whether McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King or any other fast-food restaurant, the iconography and branding of QSR is institutional in nature and responsible for how fondly we remember these brands as we go through life.

In recent years, as for all industries, conversations around digital innovation in QSR have become increasingly commonplace, with companies seeking to progress through their “digital transformation” journeys. While they continue to explore and trial different ways of using digital tools to connect with customers and drive sales, the reality of QSR is still, arguably, very much an analog reality — there’s no such thing as eating in a cloud (yet).

The pandemic acceleration

Enter the pandemic. Like many other industries, QSR scrambled to adapt to a reality that forced a drastic behavior change. The QR code and rise of online delivery are two of the biggest winners in the field of rapid adoption and user behavior change.

But, of course, those deploying these tools aren’t always QSR brands themselves. Apps and businesses like Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash nearly doubled their revenue during the pandemic. According to McKinsey, the global online delivery business is valued at $150 billion, and 2021 data from data.ai underscores how dependent consumers have become on delivery apps in the food and drink category. Of the top five in the US, only one QSR app is represented – McDonald’s, at #2. Doordash is #1, with the rest of the list rounded out by Uber Eats, Yelp and Grubhub – and this phenomenon plays out similarly in much of the world.

The rise in delivery and mobile ordering makes sense because in the thick of the pandemic, people still wanted to order food and drink from their favorite places while keeping their distance, and even as the pandemic fades into the background, the hankering for digital ordering is not dissipating. According to data from QSR magazine, Starbucks, which has had great success in building loyalty for its app, saw 75 percent of its Q4 orders coming through either drive-thru (which is increasingly digital) and mobile. In these unprecedented times, digital delivery provides choice, speed, and reliability when we all need some things to be smooth and seamless.

It is no surprise that, through the pandemic, we’ve been more connected through technology than ever before. While technology has helped people connect with one another, many technology and non-technology brands alike are helping us navigate our new lives, create new habits, and find comfort and control in an uncertain world.

For the QSR business model and marketing, technology intermediaries can create a problem; they remove the ability to fully guarantee quality control and therefore ensure a positive consumer experience. Delivery companies also disintermediate data, so QSR brands lose additional opportunities to understand and connect with their customers.

So, beyond the possibility of cold food or delivery hiccups, disintermediation creates problems in the holistic brand experience. When ordering online, competitor brands are not miles down the road, but simply a scroll away.

Add to this that the decision to choose a QSR brand is impulsive, so the available and top-of-mind brand gets the sale. In analog times, there were fewer top-of-mind brands, but mobile devices, coupled with the accessibility enabled through disintermediation, mean there’s an immense risk of losing coveted headspace.

How brands can respond

Brands can bury their heads in the sand, or be crafty in how they circumvent the disintermediation. KFC in Dubai had a smart approach to bypass third-party delivery, through cracking gaming culture codes. By rethinking its e-commerce website, programming in a ‘cheat code’ – Shift+K+F+C – it shortcut the ordering process while enabling gamers to order meals with ease.

However, in the long run, it seems clear that third-party delivery is here to stay, and QSR brands need to find ways to provide the best possible customer experience. Arguably, the strongest action brands can take is to create an emotionally-connected brand.

Emotional connectedness extends far beyond innovation, function and access — it means engaging with consumers on a personal level. Emotionally connected brands can generate deeper consumer loyalty, emotional commitment and positive brand perceptions.

To do this, it’s crucial for a QSR brand to truly understand its consumers — to think about them holistically, not just as people who buy from you. When we create a space to connect with the mother who wants share a treat with her child, or with the guy who has had a rough day and just wants to pause to enjoy a dessert, or with a creator that is so inspired writing that he cannot fathom the idea of stopping to cook a meal, we’re showing them that we see them. We need to understand how people are living now, and how will this change in the future. We need to consider our place in their lives and how we can deliver against their needs. While there are things we can’t control, we can double down our efforts in spaces the brand can control: building influence in touch points and proprietary spaces. Finally, we can work with partners to improve the brand handoff as much as possible.

An emotional connection is the most sustainable way to keep a brand in the hearts of consumers when impulse strikes. This means we need to change the way we market. Building digital emotional experiences can be more challenging than in the analog world, but as dine-in decreases in lieu of digital and convenience ordering, focusing on digital emotional experiences is not only smart, but also imperative for brand health.

How Wendy’s has built emotional engagement

For our client Wendy’s, VMLY&R has been building emotional engagement by creating connections in digital spaces, in particular approaching gaming not as a niche interest, but a social platform – for example the Keeping Fortnite Fresh campaign in November 2018. While the campaign is a few years old, what was learned from it still holds.

When Fortnite announced a new game mode called Food Fight, VMLY&R saw a way to insert Wendy’s into the game’s story and meet its audience in their own world. In this game mode, proponents of the Fortnite universe’s two restaurants — Durr Burger and Pizza Pit — could represent Team Burger or Team Pizza in battlePlayers declared their teams on social media, and burger and pizza brands followed suit. Team Burger seemed the obvious choice for Wendy’s. However, we discovered that Durr Burger stored its virtual beef in freezers, a move directly against the fresh, never frozen beef for which Wendy’s is famous. So, in a surprising move, Wendy’s declared Team Pizza. How could the brand possibly support a hamburger chain that serves customers frozen beef?

While other restaurants were merely tweeting their allegiance, Wendy’s demonstrated its allegiance to Team Pizza by actually playing the game. Instead of eliminating other players, the brand played the game wrong and eliminated all burger freezers from the game. Wendy’s used Fortnite as a vehicle for its core brand messaging and virtually demonstrate its commitment to the brand’s core differentiator: fresh, never frozen beef.

The brand played the game as a character with red hair and pigtails (just like its logo), and for nine hours straight, streamed its destruction of any and all beef-laden freezers. The results put the campaign drastically over its original campaign goals, beating engagement goals in some cases by over 1,200%, with 1.5M minutes watched, and 119% increase in social mentions of Wendy’s. This kind of emotional connectedness is crucial for the presence of mind of brands in a reality where consumers are exposed to different messages all day.

How to build emotional connectedness

The word “emotional” might feel broad. But it gets less daunting when a brand takes the time to seek out authentic points of value for audiences that transforms them from a simple line of demographic data in a brief to people it would be genuinely good to know.

Achieving this in our current environment is part science, part art. It requires:

  • Building and training teams capable of genuine empathy, curiosity, and respect for the audiences they’re talking to.
  • Understanding and building data while going beyond Excel spreadsheets and graphs, finding ways to connect with the actual human behind the target box on the brief.

QSRs that are venturing into digital spaces to reach more consumers will benefit greatly from taking the time to explore how to create authentic emotional connections to make up for the business reality of disintermediation.

A connected brand connects with people on an emotional level, meeting them where they are: whether in moments of indulgence, in celebrations, in nursing broken hearts, in running around surviving everyday chaos. Emotional connectedness is the magic that happens when both the brand experience and customer experience deliver. This path is the most sustainable way forward for both brand health and business health, particularly in sectors such as QSR where brand experience is so crucial.

About the authors

Mingthoy Sanjur
Senior Strategist, VMLY&R

Jeremy Cline
Manager, Strategy & Insights, VMLY&R

Bret Smith
Managing Director, Strategy & Insights, VMLY&R







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