The “Blurred Lines” of restaurant loyalty

If you’ve listened to the radio, or watched music videos this past summer, you’ve probably heard the insanely popular song Blurred Lines. True to its title the song pretty much blurs everything – from the meaning of its lyrics to the musical genre in which it belongs.

But the last few months haven’t just been about blurring musical lines. The lines of demarcation within the restaurant industry and its subsets are becoming increasingly blurry as well. Recently, I’ve observed a significant identity shift as casual dining, fast casual dining and quick service restaurants all attempt to mimic elements of the others. However, as these lines blur, new opportunities for customer engagement are rapidly coming into focus.

Eat, Drink and be Merry: Loyalty Served Fresh

Restaurants such as KFC, once considered quick service, are expanding into fast casual territory with the launch of its KFC eleven pilot program, which recently opened its flagship restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. It offers vastly different options including flatbreads, salads and rice bowls with creative names like “Caribbean Tango” and “Southwestern Baja” – a dramatic departure from a menu that’s been largely unchanged for over 80 years. While the experiment is still in its infancy, early reviews are positive with at least one writer calling for a nationwide rollout, “KFC Eleven would make a great fit for downtown and urban areas.”

Casual dining restaurants are also adding elements of speed to their customer experience. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., for instance, is undergoing significant rebranding with new menu choices including appetizers, desserts and upgraded cocktails at multiple price points. It’s also changing its service model, presumably for a faster and better customer experience. The chain is simultaneously rolling out smaller, fast casual-sized 4,000 square-foot restaurants and a spinoff experiment called Red Robin Burger Works, a competitor to establishments such as Five Guys. Reinforcing its commitment to rebranding, the chain recently announced the creation of a new position, vice president of brand marketing – tapping former Applebee’s executive John Schaufelberger for the job.

Digesting Market Realities

A still-sluggish economy is one reason for the shifting identities, but some of the challenges lie with casual restaurants themselves. A recent study by Market Force Information finds a lack of new restaurant openings has undercut customer interest. It also found that few marketing outlets are inspiring diners to try something new – online reviews and ads only motivated 5% of survey respondents.

However, 56% of responders were inspired by recommendations from friends and family as well as by promotions and coupons. These engagement methods can easily be improved and adapted to the digital space. Thus, restaurants of all types have an opportunity to turn Market Force Information’s less optimistic numbers on their heads.

Room for Dessert and the Sweet Side of Social Media

Putting the differences between casual and fast casual dining aside, the point is clear: diners crave genuine engagement as well as timely and relevant offers – and social media is a great way to satisfy that craving. The Restaurant Social Media Index, compiled by Digital CoCo, finds that usage of Foursquare, Instagram and Vine is growing among fast casual and QSRs – led by Chipotle, Starbucks, Firehouse Subs, Wendy’s and Shake Shack.

Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, have been major components of Hooters’  rebranding, which aims to broaden the restaurant’s female customer base as it marks its 30th anniversary. Launched earlier this year, the “Step into Awesome” campaign includes posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other channels, with customers encouraged to share their “awesome experiences.” In less than a month, over 10,000 photos were posted to the hashtag #StepIntoAwesome.

Efforts like this make clear that traditional customer rewards programs are just the beginning of successful loyalty marketing – expanded menus, improved ambiance and creative social media are equally important. Ultimately, customers care far more about service, prices and their overall experiences than they do about restaurants’ names and blurred-line subcategories.

So eat up and enjoy. And remember that restaurant loyalty is a dish that can be served hot or cold and that, ideally, preserves well. Bon appétit.


Pamela Sullins is director of client services, Kobie Marketing

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