Restaurants face questions about advertising re-opened dining rooms

  • Applebee’s recently faced backlash after running a commercial welcoming customers back to restaurants. 
  • “Promoting dine-in amidst this reality seems irresponsible and out of step with common sense health guidelines and in some cases, local regulations,” said Chris Allieri, founder at brand consultancy Mulberry & Astor.
  • Chains including KFC and McDonald’s are encouraging franchisees to look into re-closing dining rooms in “hot spots” such as Florida, Arizona, and California. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As restaurants reopen — and, in some cases re-close — dining rooms, companies are facing uncomfortable questions on how to advertise to customers. 

Earlier in July, a video showing the transition from a news report on the death of Broadway star Nick Cordero due to complications from COVID-19 to a commercial for Applebee’s went viral. While the ad highlights delivery and to-go options, the focus is a family eating at a booth inside a restaurant as the “Welcome Back, Kotter” theme song plays.  

“Welcome back, America,” says a voice-over. “It sure is good to see you.”

“This transition entirely f—ed me up,” reads a viral tweet about the commercial.

Others on Twitter similarly felt the ad was out of touch with the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the US. 

A representative for Applebee’s told Business Insider that the chain’s top priority “continues to be the health and well-being of our team members, guests and the neighborhoods we serve.” 

“As restaurants across the country reopen their dining rooms, our franchisees are adhering to all federal, state and local mandates, and we’ve taken proactive measures above what is required to ensure a safe experience for guests who choose to dine-in,” the representative said. “We understand that not all guests are comfortable with dining in, which is why our ad spotlights the variety of ways people can enjoy Applebee’s, including delivery, Applebee’s To Go and dine-in offerings.”

Applebee’s is just one of many brands trying to determine the best way to advertise during the pandemic. 

Through March and April, many restaurant chains shifted advertising to applaud first responders and highlight delivery and drive-thru options. Some reduced spending, with Business Insider’s Patrick Coffee and Tanya Dua reporting in late April that Subway cut its ad budget by about 50% since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Dining rooms are reopening — but it might not be time to advertising their return 

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Restaurants are reopening.

Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Sit-down, casual dining chains lacked the drive-thru and delivery infrastructure that some fast-food chains rivals had going into the pandemic. So, for chains like Applebee’s, being able to serve customers in dining rooms is a much more significant part of business. 

Still, experts say that just because restaurants are legally able to reopen dining rooms, it does not necessarily mean it is safe to do so. As of mid-July, few national chains other than Applebee’s have run commercials that explicitly highlight dining rooms reopening.

Brand experts told Business Insider that restaurants need to be cautious about advertising as they reopen dining rooms. 

“Promoting dine-in amidst this reality seems irresponsible and out of step with common-sense health guidelines and in some cases, local regulations,” said Chris Allieri, founder at brand consultancy Mulberry & Astor. “This is a time to listen to health experts, not politicians.”

“While furloughs and steep drop-offs in sales are part of a stark reality, restaurants need to ask themselves what side of history do they want to be on,” Allieri continued. “These large corporations are accountable to the communities in which they operate.” 

Jacinta Gauda, the principal The Gauda Group, a communications firm that works on branding, strategy, and diversity and inclusion, said now is the time that restaurants should be working to “deepen and broaden the meaning of the restaurant’s brand, to tell the larger brand story.”

“This level of branding goes beyond romancing food and emphasizing gatherings,” Gauda said. “It requires restaurants to meet their customers where they are – tentative, confused, unsure, and hopeful that things will return to normal.”

As chains launch new national advertising campaigns, they are being forced to reckon with an ever-evolving situation. Experts have warned the recovery will not be linear, something that has been clear in the US as cases spike in certain states. 

Some national chains are already closing dining rooms back down. This week, KFC advised franchisees to re-close dining rooms in “hot spot states of Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California.” On July 1, McDonald’s paused all reopening plans for 21 days. 

“This surge shows nobody is exempt from this virus – even places that previously had very few cases,” reads a letter from Joe Erlinger, McDonald’s US president, and Mark Salebra, the head of the National Franchisee Leadership Alliance. “Moving forward, we will continue to monitor the situation and adjust as needed to protect the safety of our employees and customers.”

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