A Side of Phygital: McAlister's Upgrades the QSR Experience

Adversity is the mother of innovation, especially if you have been a marketer in the QSR industry this past year. As we discovered at this week’s QSR Brand Insider Summit, the segment vigorously upped its game in digital experiences, new product offerings and online connections with loyal customers. But as consumers flow back into eat-out mode, what online behaviors will they want to bring with them to physical dining experiences?

McAlister’s Deli is trying to answer that one with a new table-side ordering function in its mobile app. As we explore with Danielle Parra, head of marketing and culinary, bringing tech into the on-site QSR meal ordering chain actually helps McAlister’s increase and enhance personal interactions with its customers rather than circumvent the human touch. You can listen to the entire podcast at this link.



MediaPost: What are the main channels that traditionally constitute most of your media spend?

Danielle ParraWe invest heavily in digital and, because of being embedded in the communities, we really focus on a radius around each of our stores and leverage the behavioral customer targeting that's possible with digital media. So this includes engagement-driving vehicles, like social, as well as digital video and audio. But then, of course, location-based and search-based marketing as well, to round out that digital experience.

MP: Delivery and directory apps have changed the QSR marketing landscape so much. How are you leveraging them? 

Parra: If you're looking for something that's immediately around you, it's imperative from a restaurant standpoint that you show up and you're right there in that customer consideration set. So we partner organically with a lot of those map- and location-based sites. So getting after SEO by making sure that our restaurant location pages have all the information you need: pickup, delivery, convenient links, so we really have a robust and branded page for each of our individual locations.

And that helps us from an organic search perspective, and also from some of those map locations, but it's clearly key to be there from a media standpoint as well. Google Local is a core component of that mix, partnering with platforms like Yext. 

I think you have to have a diversified approach to that and really put yourself in your consumers’ shoes, so you're not missing those opportunities to get into the consideration set if they haven't made up their mind of where they're having lunch or dinner that day.

MP: How do you balance between wanting to use third-party providers to get new customers, but at the same time, wanting to get that data and to eventually own the customer?

Parra: The most important thing is to provide a value-added service to your guests. When you do that, they're going to want to engage with you. So that's been our approach with the app and with our loyalty program: constantly looking at those guests insights and looking at what it is that would add value to their day-to-day life.  

At the end of 2019 and into early 2020, we already had in the works a complete relaunch of our loyalty program as well as the app. During the pandemic we were able to go to our customers and provide an ability through McAlister’s Rewards to earn points for everything they spend.

But most important, and unlike some other programs, we're not forcing that rewards redemption to only one item. We're able to say, hey, when you get to 500 points, you can get a beverage or kids meal, but if you want to bank that and you want to wait till [you have] 2,000 points, now you get a soup, or a side, or a dessert.

And if you really want to treat yourself, wait until you're at the next tier, and you get a free entrée. So we're all about putting that choice in consumers’ hands, and we've heard great feedback about that. We continue to grow double digits each month [with] our loyalty program enrollment. 

The app follows closely with that. What is it that you want from us today, how do you want us to serve you? Is that curbside, is it through table side, or pickup in-store? And so giving the customer that order mode choice in the moment, and then making sure that it's linked to the loyalty program, so they can see where they're tracking along the way and enjoy those rewards. 

MP: Has there been a secret sauce in driving people from the third parties into your own app? 

Parra: One of the core parts of our brand has always been a phrase of “A little something extra.” And for the loyalty program, to your point about enticing that initial download and enrollments, we offer a free tea. When you use McAlister’s delivery, you're earning those reward points. That's been a big part of our message, especially to our existing guests. 

We found success in offering a little bit of a treat. So when you use our delivery, for example, perhaps it's a couple of free cookies that we’ll put in with McAlister’s delivery, so something that's a little above and beyond and makes you feel special.

MP: Your app also now provides a new experience in table-side dining. How does that work? 

Parra: The impetus behind it was to completely skip the line. Now when you come in, you seat yourself at the table, you pick your phone up, and you order directly from your phone, customizing your menu items as you'd like, and then we serve you at your table.

And we do it in multiple courses, so first we'll bring drinks, and we're able to recognize you by name. Then we bring your meal, and we provide free refills along the way, and end that with plate clearing. So it really is a full-service table-side dining experience, and we think it's the future of an elevated experience at fast casual.

And to your point, it happens to be done through the app, so it's a great way to bring that value to the customer, encourage that app usage, and you're earning your loyalty rewards points along the way.

MPIt’s using digital app technology to fundamentally change a physical experience.

Parra: It's interesting you say that. So when we were originally launching it, we were calling it table-side ordering. And then we had those discussions as an internal team and, as we got the feedback from guests and said, this isn't about where you're ordering, this is about the entire table-side dining experience. And because, again, you're being served your meal in multiple courses, you're having your plate cleared for you, it really completes that loop. 

MP: Now that you've got that digital interface in store, does that change the marketing opportunities here? 

ParraI think in a couple of ways: digitally and on the personal level. There are things you can get only exclusively in the app. We want to be able to access your prior orders. So there are a lot of our guests who have favorite items, might have multiple favorite items. But having that fast access to your prior favorite items and the customization that you did for that, well now you don't have to go through that selection process.

In addition, every time you're coming in the app, we’re reminding you about that loyalty program. You can see your status - how close am I to that free entrée, am I ready to redeem that free beverage on this visit? So you're getting so much more than just that immediate ordering experience. And how do we make sure that those team members can come out and be much more relationship-oriented when they're delivering that food table-side for our guests? 

MP: As you're looking at the next year's marketing plan, what are the key things you feel you need to solve for as a marketer?

Parra: One of the things that I think is critical, saying what [does] my brand stand for and stand behind, what are my unique differentiators, and where do I add value to consumers’ lives? And then building your digital platform and your service platform around that.

That's always been our heart. There are folks who actually are surprised to find out that there are McAlister’s outside of their hometown because they feel, and have felt for many, many years, that it’s their own personal McAlister’s

Our menu breadth, and our variety, that's also a core component because you're not having to choose, am I satisfying one family member or another. And so we're constantly going back to those brand pillars of hospitality, of local community engagement, and  variety in the menu. 

So when we talk about marketing, what’s our path for culinary innovation that continues to play into that? How do we do exclusives within our app and our digital environment? For instance, our El Tio items that we create are not available in third-party delivery. You have to be using the McAlister’s delivery for that. 

We also want to find ways relevant to our brand differentiators to add value in our first-party delivery channel, and to our digital experiences. So every time we're developing a new feature, it had to come back to those core brand tenets.

I think we're going to see that type of focus and understanding of where you differentiate against competition. Because, to your point, the basic functions have become  something you can find across all brands. You see a blurring of lines between the segments in restaurant: what's casual versus fast casual, versus QSR -- and I don't think consumers think about it that way.

They think about, what are you bringing to my life on a day-to-day basis, and how has that experience resonated with me? And that starts with the heart of using your brand to inform those experiences. With table-side dining, we think we are inventing a new elevated service experience that you don't find in fast casual, and it absolutely feels to the consumer a lot more like what you get in a casual experience, but with the benefits of fast casual from a pricing perspective, etc. So that's how we're looking at the marketing challenges coming up. 

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