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Connecting digitally with customers should be a top priority for all fast casuals, Gwen Brannon, Coca-Cola Director of guest insights & analytics, said during a session at the  2018 National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. Restaurateurs today are on the receiving end of a dizzying array of advice on “how to” do digital well, but her research both distills that advice and verifies it through restaurant data and other information.

First and foremost, she stressed that there are three priorities for restaurateurs in all digital communications:

  • Evolve: Digital sands shift swiftly today, so keep your finger on the pulse of all those channels and respond quickly.
  • Humanize: Digital only succeeds when that human connection happens, so strive to achieve that in all digital efforts.
  • Engage:This means purposeful connection must be made through digital efforts by either making a strong point with the customer or helping remove the tension that is present in all of our lives today.

Brannon said that although just eight years ago all the foodservice conversation tended to swirl around in-restaurant atmosphere, today she said it’s all about digital and specifically, digital customization.

“So, looking to 2025 … we have to think of digital as a whole new world,” she told the Chicago audience. “People today are tethered to their digital devices … and our entire lives are digital. So just entering this space and throwing another app out there won’t work. You have to think about humanization.”

Humanization: An age group-based chameleon

Brannon said that since consumers are largely shaped by their environments, clarifying the environment each age group has grown up and older with is critical to successfully making that human connection with them. To illustrate, she designated four main age groups, relevant to restaurateurs, including:

  • Baby Boomers: Those ages 54 to 72, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Generation X:Those ages 37 to 57, according to the census bureau.
  • Millennials: Those ages 18 to 36, according to the census bureau.
  • Centennials or Generation Z: Those ages 13 to 18, according to the census bureau.

No other age groups were included in her discussion, which started with an interesting characterization of each group centered around the world events that have helped to mold them. Her definitions also provided some good overall “get-to-know-them” information for restaurateurs working to engage each group.

“Generation Z … 62 percent (of this age group) said people are looking to them for influence and advice — they feel like that”

Digital engagement: Meet them where they are 

Brannon characterized each of the four groups by comparing their digital relationships to romantic ones, including everything from casual dating to full commitment, which is where the youngest age group is with all things digital.

  • Centennials: Brannon classifies this age group as being in a “complex marriage” with digital communication, proven through their affinity for venues like Snapchat and Whisper. They place a high value on technology, while also being “afraid of it,” to some extent, she said. As a result, these youngsters do not feel a pressing need to engage digitally in a “major way,” she said. They are also almost militantly opinionated, realistic, responsible and love to create their own content.
  • Millennials: These individuals are in what Brannon calls the “newlywed phase” with digital media, where they feel downright “blissful” about the channels they use and try all different kinds of venues. They tend to share heavily via social media, but as the result of world-changing events occurring in their formative years (for instance, the recession and terrorist attacks), they are filled with uncertainty and have a strong need to feel control over their destinies. They, too, like to create content, though not as much as their younger counterparts.
  • Generation X: These individuals are highly suspicious and seeking to resolve the tension in their lives through the digital space. Brannon classifies this group as being “in a relationship” with digital channels. However, interestingly perhaps, they tend to use email as their No. 1 means of remaining in touch with others — in fact, more so than any other generation.
  • Baby Boomers: Characterized as just kind of “dating” technology, rather than in a committed relationship with it, Baby Boomers might be heard saying something like, “Well, I’ve got to get on social media because everyone else is,” Brannon said. Most have one social media account and usually it’s Facebook. And she said, more than any other generation, they like to share content with others, but are far less concerned about their “personal brands” than other age groups.

The bottom line for QSR leaders: Speaking their language(s) … all of them

Those previous definitions were designed to help QSR operators translate their digital communication to each age group’s language. But Brannon went a step further to underscore some key approaches for each generation that will work well digitally to humanize and engage them as customers.

Here’s how all those bytes of data Brannon has pored over can be distilled down to the best ways to engage each group.

Baby Boomers

Keep it simple with this age group, which is why Brannon said many brands are having the most success with Boomers via a social media site called “Stitch.” Boomers don’t want to be made to feel “dumb” about technology, but they like to be attended to and want very much to be appreciated.

“The big difference with this is that they (Stitch) have a phone number for customer service … and that’s very familiar and engaging for Boomers,” she said, as an example of why the venue appeals so greatly to Boomers. “And remember, this group loves to share … so make it short and shareable for the most meaningful connections here.”

  • Winner with Boomers: Shareable videos

“Boomers … more than any other generation, they like to share content with others, but are far less concerned about their ‘personal brands’ than other age groups.”


“They want life experiences and like to engage one-on-one with restaurants,” Brannon said. “So, customization is what’s really key here. … Also remember, they trust themselves more than anyone else, so (for example) they will use the app to put orders in because they feel they can do it better than a crew member can.”

Brannon added that millennials like to be surprised by brands and want to help their communities, whether that be through patronizing a brand that does community work or helping a brand to contribute to the betterment of the world at large through sustainable practices.

  • Winner with them: Brand initiatives that support charity. 

Generation X

Convenience is the operative word with these individuals who are typically part of two-income families with kids. This means brand that give this age group ways to balance everything on their plates will get extra credit. But they have a strong need to feel successful and in control, so be mindful of that in your efforts.

“When engaging with them, it’s really important to humanize things. … So, with mobile ordering with moms, they say, ‘Yes, let me pre-order and get me to your restaurant, but it’s hard for me if you don’t bring me the food (due to kids in car seats and other issues). ….

“So, as long as you remember what’s going on in their lives and relieve those human tensions with technology, it works. This (age group) is about balance and being fun … but don’t forget their kids on your mobile ordering menus.”

  • Winner with them: Online ordering of all types.

Centennials/Generation Z

With this generation, Brannon said brand leaders need to stay ever-mindful of the fact that this is a Snapchat-ish type of group that demands flexibility and speed. Likewise, they love to learn and are looking for platforms that let them do that as well as teach others.

“62 percent (of this age group) said people are looking to them for influence and advice — they feel like that,” Brannon said. “But, don’t forget about the Snap(chat). … So, be short and fast. They have very small attention spans and short time periods to engage with you.”

  • Winners with them: Transparency initiatives like menu labeling and freebies that you can guarantee 100 percent. 

As a final word, Brannon acknowledged that restaurateurs now have to stay on their toes more than ever since the digital landscape will likely re-invent itself entirely over the next 10 years as some of the channels die and others emerge. But through it all, the one thing restaurant leaders can stay focused on is the value of knowing the human beings at the other end of their communication, while always remembering that each brings a little something different to the virtual table.

“So, remember, don’t engage with one to the degree that you alienate the others.”

Posted with permission from
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S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, S.A. Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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