The Key to Pivoting Your Foodservice Media Strategies Amid COVID-19

Regardless of industry, COVID-19 has caused widespread disruption. Foodservice is among those industries being most devastated by the pandemic. As a food marketer, with more than 100,000 restaurant closures, you’ve likely found yourself evaluating and reevaluating your marketing and media plans over the past several months. And the foodservice sector continues to evolve daily. This turbulence may have you wondering how these changes will impact consumer and trade behaviors in the future. Where will we be in another two months? And what expectations are realistic as you look at your foodservice media plan for 2021?

More than ever before, food marketers need to surround themselves with strong partnerships to navigate these uncertain times. With its network of connections, your agency should be at the top of your list when it comes to the strong partners you can rely on. Here at EvansHardy+Young (EHY), our 30-plus years of working in the food industry have solidified trusted relationships across the restaurant, CPG, foodservice and food retail sectors. These relationships have undoubtedly supported us and our clients in the past several months as we redesigned campaigns, renegotiated contracts and unlocked new opportunities to continue to engage our foodservice target audiences.

The State of Foodservice Following Shelter-in-Place Orders

The sudden order to shelter in place, followed by unclear regulations and an uncertain future, pushed many independent restaurants into permanent closure. The few restaurants that were able to remain open, at least initially, were forced to quickly shift their operations to maximize as much profit as possible from takeout and delivery. As of today, quick-service restaurants, especially those with drive-through capabilities, are among the segments performing the best. This is in stark contrast to the still-struggling reality of many full-service restaurants, bars and noncommercial foodservice operations.

As rules and regulations evolved and changed daily, foodservice media publications had to evolve quickly as well. Publishers could no longer rely on traditional formats to reach operators with the news and resources desperately needed. In order to maintain their position of authority with the food industry, food editors needed to adjust their publications’ content and format to address the new realities of running (or pivoting) operations. They also needed to quickly boost their digital communication channels to match the new pace of the news cycle. E-newsletters, webinars, podcasts and online stories became even more so the go-to mediums for foodservice operators as they tried to stay as informed as possible.

Moving even further up the value chain, food manufacturers supplying the foodservice industry were also put to the test. With supply chain disruptions, order cancellations and their customers (restaurant operators) seeking assistance, food manufacturers had to reevaluate their marketing and business plans in order to adapt to the new reality impacting their foodservice profits.

How to Tackle Your Foodservice Media Plans to Ensure Everyone Wins

With many of EHY’s food clients right in the middle of previously planned and placed media schedules, we needed to quickly assess the new media landscape and adapt plans accordingly. The big question on our clients’ minds was, “Should we pivot plans and maintain our spending? Or should we pull back our foodservice media temporarily, pause it or cancel plans altogether?”

This was a valid dilemma, and each direction presented unique challenges for our team and our clients. Maintaining spend likely would require a creative refresh to ensure messaging still resonated with the target audience. On the other hand, reducing or pausing spend meant potentially losing the momentum we’d gained earlier in the year.

Here’s a glimpse into some of the ways EHY helped our clients navigate these tough foodservice media decisions to ensure all stakeholders – operators, media and brands – benefited from the outcome. We hope this peek into our agency’s process offers you some ideas to collaborate and tackle your own brand’s challenges ahead.

Arm Yourself With Market Intelligence and Insights for Sound Strategies

When market conditions shift, as they did with the onset of COVID-19, the first order of business is to gain as much information and insight as possible. Our goal was to get the most complete picture of the situation. To accomplish this, we proactively reached out to our industry connections in the foodservice space, including chefs, culinary consultants, media publishers and market intelligence partners. We scheduled virtual meetings and webinars, which included interviews with restaurant chain executives. These individuals were able to describe the situation firsthand and forecast their restaurant pivoting strategies.

With the new focus on takeout and delivery, restaurant operators had to become very creative if they were to survive. From a marketing and media standpoint, we were in a unique position to help them pivot their operations. From our research, we were able to identify the right media channels to effectively reach foodservice operators, chefs and decision-makers. The next step required pivoting our client’s creative messaging toward new product solutions that would adapt well to this new foodservice landscape.

Our food industry background paired with the new knowledge we obtained from our industry connections helped us quickly lay the groundwork for revived strategies.

Leverage Your Media Relationships to Ensure Flexibility and Seamlessness

Within days of the stay-at-home orders being issued, EHY was already deep into making necessary adjustments to our clients’ media plans. With the help of our media partnerships, we were able to quickly negotiate necessary cancellations, reschedule buys that no longer made sense and update any client creative that needed a refresh due to the evolving state of the industry.

At first, one of our main concerns was the loss of print readership. Due to editorial and ads going to print two months prior to the issue date, entire print publications were facing pages filled with irrelevant topics and ads. We knew some of this was expected, but we wanted a peek into the upcoming food editorial. Would it be relevant to the current situation and thus impactful for our clients? We spent a great deal of time talking to publishers to find out how they were planning to shift their editorial calendars.

In the print arena, several magazines naturally consolidated to bimonthly editions. Meanwhile, others decided to transition to digital-only magazines through 2021. Fortunately, foodservice trade publications adapted very quickly. Shifting the focus to their websites and social pages, they were able to provide industry news updates and strategies everyone desperately needed. Because we communicated daily with our media partners, they were able to facilitate last-minute changes and offer unique digital options that kept our clients’ messaging and schedule on target.

Quickly Pivot Your Messaging and Adapt Tactics to Support the Brand

Feeling confident that we had solid industry knowledge as well as insight into the path it would be taking forward, we began working with each of our foodservice clients to reformulate their communication plans for the foreseeable future. Investing time to gather this important intel has ensured the content published across each brand’s owned and paid channels not only remains relevant and useful but also addresses food professionals’ most pressing questions and needs.

Looking forward, we still have media plans that include a combination of print, digital and social. However, with our refreshed creative messaging on hand, for now we are reducing print schedules to increase digital and social spending. We’re also working with our media partners to uncover creative placement opportunities such as a recent digital campaign focused on a national food “holiday” that one of our clients strongly aligns with.

This fluid, hands-on and personalized approach is positioning our foodservice clients as committed partners. This is especially important in a time when operators are looking for product solutions adapted for takeout and delivery. To date, our revised media plans are not only allowing our clients to maintain a presence in the marketplace, but they are also meeting or exceeding projected KPIs.

The Right Food Media Partnerships Make Hard Decisions Easier

The ongoing circumstances of COVID-19 have dramatically altered the foodservice industry and, subsequently, the media and foodservice manufacturers supporting it. More than ever, you need an agency on your side that will act proactively to make the most informed decisions for your food brand. By continuously fostering the right relationships, EHY’s collective expertise provides clients with innovative ideas and solutions attuned to the evolving food industry.

We deeply understand the challenges facing every sector of this business – we’re living through them right along with you. And we know it’s imperative to act fast and be nimble, especially in times like these, which is why we’ve chosen our specialization. Whether following our advice or your own agency’s recommendations, great partnerships lead to more creative work and collaborations, and that ultimately means a more valuable return on your investments.

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Bobby Georges, Sr. Media Negotiator EvansHardy+Young
Bobby Georges, Sr. Media Negotiator

With 10 years of professional chef experience before joining EHY, Bobby knows how to serve up the best national media buys on foodie-centric lifestyle networks. As a Sr. Media Negotiator, he has the winning recipe for matching our food clients with the best custom media plans.