The long queues outside fast-food restaurants made news across the country when some began reopening last month. Headlines that captured the frenzy and desire of people vying for a takeaway included "McDonald’s fans wait two hours to place orders", "Burger King queue causes traffic jam", "KFC lovers queue around the block" and so on.
One employee of Mother, which has KFC as a client, recalls speaking to people queuing at a London branch of the restaurant chain after it opened for delivery and takeaway in May. When asked why they were willing to wait so long for fried chicken, a common refrain among customers was: "Because I deserve it."
"At this moment in time, we’re all having the hardest, longest Monday ever. We need something to look forward to at the end of that day and to feel like we’ve brought a bit of joy into our lives," Chris Gallery, a partner at Mother, says. "People are willing to go the extra mile for this stuff right now."
Months ago, no-one could have guessed that a fried chicken bucket or burger would take on such added significance in people’s lives. But the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have changed many everyday experiences, including buying and consuming food, and accelerated trends that had already started to transform the fast-food industry before the crisis. Now, as the lockdown eases and some semblance of normality returns, brands are reconsidering how they offer those food experiences.
"How we run restaurants has fundamentally changed," Jack Hinchliffe, marketing director at KFC UK and Ireland, explains.
Need for safety
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest shifts across customer-facing businesses since the outbreak of coronavirus has been a greater focus on health and safety, putting the onus on brands to build more trust with consumers.
In March, as the pandemic gathered pace, the government officially closed restaurants and pubs, but they were allowed to prepare food for collection or delivery. Some began gradually reopening in April and May, but with major changes to their operations and new safety regulations in place. KFC reduced the number of staff in kitchens, put in place a limited menu and tested drive-through services. Burger King adopted similar practices, as well as temperature checks for staff before entering restaurants and physical markings on floors to encourage social distancing.
Because some of these regulations are not visible to customers, transparent and open communication about safety will be a top priority for brands for the foreseeable future, Katie Evans, chief marketing officer at Burger King UK, says, adding: "We wanted to be completely transparent with our customers, ease concerns and give them some confidence."
The long queues reported at fast-food locations suggest that safety concerns were not enough to keep some fans away. Yet brands acknowledge that not all consumers will be eager to immediately leave the house and resume "normal" activities, so they must tailor their communications accordingly.
For example, Mother, which conducted a research project with Davies & McKerr that tracked 20 households over 12 weeks in lockdown, observed a notable difference between younger and older audiences in their attitudes to returning to restaurants. Much of the younger cohort were keen to return to the experiences they missed as soon as possible, while older people – who are typically more at risk from coronavirus – tended to be more cautious and express concerns about health and safety.
In recent years, many legacy fast-food brands had already been placing a greater emphasis on health to respond to the demands of an increasingly health-conscious consumer base, with some chains revamping their menus and introducing low-calorie, vegetarian or vegan options. The pandemic could amplify this demand, Evans says.
"Health is going to have even more emphasis as we slowly start to ease the panic of this pandemic. For many people, the focus will be on immunity and their well-being and overall health, in a slightly different way perhaps than before," she observes. "We are listening to Public Health England and other partners to understand what our offer should look like and how we balance the need for health with the customer who is coming back for a treat."
Burgers over banana bread?
Lockdown saw a rise in home cooking – the flour shortages in supermarkets and spate of social media posts showing people’s homemade sourdough loaves or banana bread are evidence of this. A survey by Tesco found that more than one-fifth of Brits were cooking every meal from scratch, compared with one in eight before the lockdown.
While new home cooks may continue these practices after lockdown, Evans believes that there will still be a large demand for convenience in a society that has grown accustomed to receiving things at speed.
"Even if you’re working from home, I'm still seeing massive queues in my local independent coffee shop. They start from 8am and it looks like they’re queing for much-needed supplies like toilet roll when in fact it’s a flat white. I don’t think that people will lose the urge to eat out or to have their food prepared for them. The convenience piece won’t disappear," Evans says. "No doubt behaviours will change, but there will still be a huge number of UK workers who are out and about, and who cannot work from home. We can cater to that, but equally we can cater to the at-home worker with delivery."
Delivery ‘absolutely essential’
The rise of online food delivery was sped up during the crisis as people were confined to their homes and restaurant brands anticipate this rise to continue even as lockdown eases. "Historically [delivery] wouldn’t have been as universally important, but now it is absolutely essential to our category and brand," Hinchliffe says.
Competition has grown even fiercer in this space as some higher-end restaurants branched out into takeaway and delivery to survive during quarantine. When restaurants reopen with social-distancing rules still in place, limiting the number of people who can sit down, takeaway service is likely to continue to be important to help businesses cater to more customers.
"The whole delivery channel has transformed again," Evans explains. "The last few months catapulted many brands into that space and drove many new customers to those platforms who might not have traditionally used them."
As a result, fast-food brands are increasingly concentrating on how to stand out on delivery platforms. "We have fast-tracked many of those new channels," Evans says, explaining that Burger King is considering promotions and exclusive launches on delivery sites. These marketing tactics aren’t new, but they have become crucial in the new restaurant landscape, she adds.
"These things allow you as a brand to stand out on that platform and move you to a first choice when there is so much on offer. It’s about being as creative as you would be in any other channel – how you make your voice heard and create a point of difference for customers, or offer something unique and engaging," she continues. "How your brand is represented on those channels should be considered in the same way you consider a menu in a restaurant."
Appetite for community
As quarantine forced people into isolation, it also highlighted that community, rather than just convenience, will be an important consideration for consumers going forward. Mother’s research showed that respondents, especially younger people, were missing the social side of eating out more than other elements.
"[The crisis] may change how regularly and frequently people eat out and the environments they’re willing to sit in, but as a nation we love eating out – we love the social interaction and experiencing new things," Evans says. "That experience element is so important and I don't see that disappearing. We will still have a need for experience and socialising with friends."
Burger King has been looking for different ways to foster community in this new environment. Earlier this month, it sent out hundreds of free Whoppers to streets across the UK for recipients to share with their neighbours in an attempt to encourage the community spirit that blossomed during lockdown.
Physical-distancing guidelines could dampen the social experience at restaurants, while on a practical level it will also make it difficult for many restaurants to operate at a profit. The hospitality industry lobbied the government to reduce the previous two-metre social-distance rule and it has since been lowered to one metre, but service will still be trickier than before.
Restaurant brands remain cautious about the future. Burger King UK, which expects about three-quarters of its outlets to be reopened by the end of June, has said it is "not even thinking of turning a profit this year", according to Bloomberg. The markers for success have taken on a new shape for the brand, Evans says.
"There are lots of unknowns between now and the end of the year. We’re in a new normal," she says. "For us, success will be to get every single restaurant open (which is our intention and we’re more than on track to do that), to protect the safety of our employees and customers, and to reassure and build customer confidence again to come back through whatever channel they want to engage with us, be that delivery or drive-through. And for brands to feel confidence again."
Brands such as Burger King and KFC say they also want to bring some joy back to customers’ lives. Humour has been core to how both brands communicate for a long time and their marketers are keen to hold on to their distinct tones of voice.
For example, KFC hailed the reopening of its stores with an ad, created by Mother, that poked fun at people’s lacklustre attempts to recreate fried chicken at home. It stood out from the wave of sombre advertising that had become typical during the crisis. "We were keen to put energy back into people's lives," Hermeti Balarin, a partner at Mother, said at the time.
And, in May, Burger King created giant crowns that people could wear to help with social distancing. "Distancing, but make it fashion," the brand tweeted. It was one small way of finding humour in a situation that no-one could have anticipated.
"After the last few months, people need some release," Evans says. "Sticking to our brand’s core DNA is hugely important. Customers are looking for brands to be light-hearted and to bring that joy and humour back."