Marketing and Menu Design in the Post-Digital Era

Since the start of the digital era in the mid-20th Century, technology has transformed from a differentiator to a necessity.

By the 2000s, many restaurant brands focused on one-to-one marketing, prompting them to create websites to draw in consumers to play games, enter contests and win prizes. Online ads became more targeted based on instant messaging conversations, as the National Academy of Sciences described in its Food Marketing to Children and Youth report back in 2006. The number of menu items increased to appeal to bolder tastes and younger generations, with McDonald’s introducing an Asian salad with edamame during this time period. Menu technology, however, stayed mostly the same.

Today, companies are spending $1.25 trillion annually on digitizing their business operations, and this number will grow to $1.97 trillion by 2022. Since digital transformation is the norm, the post-digital era is imminent – meaning technology is so embedded in our society that brands today must work harder to differentiate themselves than simply having one-to-one interactions with consumers. With consumer-facing technologies like Alexa growing in popularity, people now expect brands to provide them with personalized experiences. According to The Harris Poll’s RedPoint Global survey, 31% of consumers find it very frustrating if a brand does not acknowledge them as an existing customer. This poses a challenge for menu design, as menu boards have traditionally displayed the same items to different people.

More brands are using one-to-moment marketing to target customers based on the events, memes and trends they are responding to in real-time. In August 2019, Popeye’s saw the power of moment marketing as its participation in the ongoing national conversation on chicken sandwiches helped to increase sales. When Popeye’s sold out, however, there was no way to take the conversation to the drive-thru menu since Popeye’s stores still have traditional, static designs.

McDonald’s acquisition of Dynamic Yield this year shows how moment marketing can influence menu design. With this technology, item suggestions change with the time of day, weather and consumers’ individual orders, but restaurants still have a long way to go in terms of developing a way to acknowledge a menu item-related Tweet on the drive-thru order screen.

Until that time arrives, here are a few tips to get your menu ready for the post-digital era:

1 – Rethink Conventional Wisdom

In 2012, Sybil Yang, an assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management at San Francisco State University, looked at menu sweet spots and found that people mostly read menus just as they read books. This contradicts popular restaurant industry wisdom that the top right is the most eye-catching part of a menu, which was formed from studies that Yang describes as less scientific. Wearing infrared retinal eye scanners and filmed perusing a fake menu, Yang’s test subjects also took longer than expected to finish reading. Instead of focusing on a sweet spot, they avoided looking at the bottom left of the page, which Yang called a sour spot.

Necessities like sides and sauces might be a better fit for sour spots since customers are already prompted to choose these items by their previous selections. For the top of digital menu boards, 10 second animations can draw attention to high margin products without annoying consumers if they stayed at the top of the menu permanently.

2 – Get Help From a Solutions Architect

According to one university, Solutions Architects are problem solvers who use business intelligence to develop cost-effective strategies for a project. They can customize digital menus, allowing consumers to instantly recognize your brand regardless of device type or screen size. By showing restaurants effective ways to integrate menus with a cloud-based POS system, Solutions Architects make it easier for them to track ingredients and control costs.

Integrating your Instagram or Twitter feed into digital menus is one way to finally bring moment marketing to the drive-thru because it allows your brand to offer menu suggestions based on current events that your customers may be talking about online. For instance, when Popeye’s tweeted “Try our new BYOB” to suggest three tenders as a replacement for their sold-out chicken sandwiches in September 2019, they could have used digital menu boards to communicate the shortage to drive-thru customers. The Bring Your Own Bun Tweet could have appeared whenever someone ordered the sandwich for a more humorous take on the traditional “out of stock” signage.

3 – Use Customer Receipt Data to Target Higher-Traffic Demographics

According to a 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, people between the ages of 35 and 44 eat at restaurants more frequently than other age groups, for an average of about 5.3 times per week. Within this age group, women and college graduates had the highest frequencies, eating at restaurants 6 times per week.

Tracking data from customer receipts can help restaurants personalize their digital menus to capture more sales. For instance, Grubhub’s finding that women are more likely than men to order a latte for a drink, edamame for an appetizer, avocado rolls for an entrée, plantains for a side, and frozen yogurt for dessert can influence the types of items you feature on a digital menu board or in your restaurant’s app. Thanks to the arrival of artificial intelligence-powered suggestive selling, menu boards or ordering apps can now display different suggestions based on this data, so appealing to a certain demographic no longer has to alienate other guests.

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