Restaurant Branding During COVID-19: Building connection with your community

In Part II of our three-part look at restaurant branding during the pandemic, we assess how operators can build a lasting connection with their community.

By Doug Radkey

In Part I of this series, the word connection was used often. When you are building or rebuilding the essence of a brand, it is all about the connection you build with your target market.

When looking at the elements of connection from a business perspective, connection is really the most important part of the sales cycle.

The sales cycle, or what many in the industry like to refer to as the “customer journey”, is where we live or die by the connection between business and customer. Gone are the days where this was all about the start of the journey or customer acquisition.

In today’s landscape, it is also about customer retention and what happens around the “sale” of food, drink, or accommodations that make you memorable to your market.

Within the bar, restaurant, and hospitality industry, while many want convenience, they also want a memorable experience. That can be either on-premise or, increasingly, off-premise. To create conversations, connections, and experiences, however, you need to know your target audience and align it with your brand guide.

Changing profiles

You need to first understand that the market of consumers for any given brand is based on more than demographic statistics. You need to have those for your province/state, city, and local neighbourhoods, yes, but they are easy to obtain.

Detailed data on attitudes, lifestyles, activities, and spending habits is really what you need to truly build connection. How people spend their time and their money leads to psychographic profiles of a target market. Ask yourself this question: what are the true characteristics of your market?

The profile of your target audience has likely changed since March 2020. Particular aspects that have shifted include:

  • The home and work environment
  • The use of digital and e-commerce platforms
  • The typical day-parts of breakfast, lunch, and dinner
  • The elements of travel, tourism, and entertainment

All of this has had a profound effect on how restaurants in particular build brand connection. You need to know your new audience and their new behaviours, spending habits, travel habits, eating and drinking habits, and day-parts.

However, don’t get too comfortable.

As restrictions begin to lift and as vaccines become more widely distributed, the general population will have more opportunity to once again readjust these eating, drinking, travel, and spending habits.

How you anticipate and prepare for this will determine the recovery or success of your business.

RELATED: Restaurant Branding During COVID-19: Developing your brand guide

Becoming flexible

What does this mean for you, as someone trying to navigate the next one to three to six to 12 months? You’re going to have to focus on serving, not selling. You’re going to have to adapt, be flexible, and likely cater to new socio-demographics. You will have to create programs and experiences that cater to both current and new consumer needs while aligning that with your brand promise.

You will have to get ahead of the competition in terms of honing in on your brand identity and by creating elevated on-premise and off-premise experiences, creating new revenue channels, and truly understanding and connecting with your target demographics like never before.

That sounds like a lot of work, and it will be: therefore, you must ensure someone within your team is continuously working on the business and not in the business.

Next steps

Going back to that earlier question: Do you have a vision of your most ideal customer(s)?

It’s imperative to create at least three different profiles of your target (and potentially new) customers, based on your geographic area.

Every person reading this will have slightly different profiles. If you’re targeting ages 21 to 40, for example, create one profile for a 21-year-old, one for a 30-year-old, and one for a 40-year-old. Why? Because they’re all going to be unique, as they’re all going through different points in their life – more so right now than ever before.

You simply cannot target them or build connection with them the same way, or expect them to have the same guest experience when they purchase from your brand, whether online or offline. Like the people themselves, buyer personas change over time with the market, the wider climate, and the flows of different products, technology, and services.

Information on attitudes, lifestyles, activities, and spending habits (both pre-COVID and post-COVID) — how people spend their time and their money throughout the day — will help you identify your opportunities to build brand connection.

Find out how much they spend on housing, groceries, restaurants, travel, and entertainment. What brands do they navigate toward? What technology do they use? What social channels do they use? What does their (new) day-to-day life look like?

You must position yourself to make sound adjustments and offer flexibility based on demand, data, guest sentiment, and brand alignment. When you align these profiles with a developed brand guide, the elements of connection begin to happen. This is where you can quickly become a memorable brand.

We have all missed the conversations, the laughter, the experiences, the travel, the memories, and the social interactions often found within our favourite restaurants, bars, and hotels. We have all missed that stranger who instantly becomes a friend, or that Instagrammable cocktail or hand-crafted meal made just moments ago, or connecting with friends after a long day at work for some simple fun and escape, or watching the game with a bar full of cheering fans. We have all missed the energy, the culture, the diversity, the sights of our favourite destinations, the places to see and be seen and to share with our growing social networks.

All of this was largely ripped away from our normal day-to-day lives as operators, and even as consumers ourselves. But those feelings, emotions, and connections can and will return. It falls upon you, however, to build that brand guide, develop a true level of connection, and become memorable.

Read Part I of Restaurant Branding During COVID-19 here, and stay tuned for Part III.

Doug Radkey is president of KRG Hospitality Inc., author of the book Bar Hacks, and an international keynote speaker on all things restaurants, bars, and boutique hotels. Being in the hospitality industry for over 20 years has allowed him to become a leading voice in the development of detailed feasibility studies, award-winning concepts, strategic business plans, unique menus, memorable guest experiences, and financial management systems. For more information, visit