Writing a New Chapter in Crisis Communication

Communication styles have never been as important to our employees and customers during this unprecedented time. Over the last month we've seen companies take on different communication strategies in a day-by-day changing marketplace.

From our observation, we've seen brands and their business stakeholders communicate in one of three ways:

  1.  Business as usual. No evident change in marketing or communication strategy.
  2. COVID-19 proactive communication. This includes integrating the brand into this new reality while providing consumer awareness of the considerations and accommodations to serve customers.
  3.  No communication.

To further understand how different brands are communicating in this time of crisis, let’s hear from some leading companies in the food service industry. Below are excerpts from my conversation with Landon Eckles, CEO & Co-Founder of Clean Juice, and Renee Israel, Chief Franchise Officer of Modern Restaurant Concepts, which features the Modern Market Eatery & Lemonade brands.

For my first question, how do you perceive the role of communication in this time of crisis? As a follow up, what are you doing at your company to communicate to your customers in this new normal?

Landon Eckles: When I think about communication, I think about three different parties.

  1. How do I communicate with my team in real time?
  2. Once we make decisions how do we communicate out to our franchise owners?
  3. What are we doing to communicate with our guests? 

We have to get all three of these right for us to make a positive impact, which is the whole goal.

We closed the office a few weeks ago, and I’ve spoken to everyone on my team at least two to five times a week. We are a restaurant brand and essential, so we are keeping our doors open so it’s imperative to communicate with our team with regard to measures to stay safe in this environment.

Of course, our responsibility and obligation to our guests is to continue to live out our mission of providing them food that is truly healthy in an uplifting environment. The whole team is bought into this mission, our franchise system is bought in, and it’s really just making sure we get all the little details right.

Renee Israel: From a communication standpoint it’s important to constantly evaluate what is resonating right now, and how we can connect to guests in a meaningful way.  We have been leaning into inspiration or education alongside the need to pass along practical information about how Modern Market and frankly all restaurants are an essential resource to guests and their communities during this unusual time. Companies that use a framework like this as a basis for all communication in the current environment have a really good place to start.  People really appreciate authenticity and connection. 

How are we communicating to our customers in this new normal? Given that the idea was to ensure Modern Market is considered a critical and safe resource in this time, we needed to craft relevant messaging to support this. In normal times, consumers might not think of restaurants in this way.  So having a communication plan that was built on these ideas made sense. First, we are a viable option vs. a grocery store, an environment not everyone is comfortable with right now, or even has the kind of quality food we can provide as conveniently.  Second, the fact that not everyone has the time to cook–especially now given we have our kids at home and our lives are becoming more complicated, not less. And finally, the idea of “supporting your local restaurants.” This kind of messaging around supporting your local restaurants, and the staff and owners of these restaurants, while highlighting the sanitary procedures of our restaurants helped educate consumers.

How do you integrate the safety message to make consumers feel they can take advantage of your offerings in a way that doesn’t compromise them?

Landon Eckles: First we’ve doubled down on all of our cleaning efforts. If you thought Clean Juice stores were clean before, they are 10X more clean now. We’ve done little things like consumers can’t grab their own straws, napkins, or utensils as we package them with our gloves so it’s all very sterile. We put all of this together and then hand it to our guest so there is nothing they have to touch. When guests come in, we are making sure we are socially distancing ourselves with six feet and have set up our registers in a way to adhere to this. Before this all started, we didn’t have curbside pick-up.

Our responsibility and obligation to our guests is to continue to live out our mission of providing them food that is truly healthy in an uplifting environment.

Once this all happened, we quickly innovated this into our programming. Now guests can let us know (if they order through our app) we can bring the food out to them so they don’t even have to come into our stores. We also created a program called “Buy and Blend”. Consumers can come into our store or have delivered five smoothies with the ingredients included they can put in their freezer. When they are ready to make their own smoothie, we give them a half gallon of almond milk and they can blend their own smoothie.

From a safety perspective, consumers now only have to come one time to our stores but don’t have to give up the frequency. We are limiting the amount of trips they need to come to the store, while giving them the product they always loved and enjoyed.

How do you balance tone when you are trying to get customers to be aware of your product but at the same time are having their own hardships?

Renee Israel: Fifty percent of Modern Market’s orders begin digitally, so fortunately, many of our guests are already coming to our website or following us in social media.  There, they will immediately see how we are nurturing them and their communities during these unprecedented times including free delivery over $35. To take it a step further, we communicated early on that guests could request deeper discounts for need-based groups impacted by this crisis, such as frontline health workers caring for COVID-19 patients or workers who provide free and reduced lunch for students even though they aren’t in school. In the realm of communicating to people to “save your local restaurant”, we can also express our offers to help consumers during this critical time.

Landon Eckles: We have to be authentic. We have to make sure we are understanding of what people are going through, while also continuing to provide them with truly health products in an uplifting environment. We just have to make sure to do this in our Clean Juice way, just in our new parameters. When communicating with our guests we are first letting them know we are open. We are trying to incentivize guests to use our third party delivery platforms like Uber Eats, Doordash, etc – to be sensitive and provide options if they don’t want to come to our stores. We put so much effort into innovating through all of this I think our guests really appreciate it. Even though spending habits have changed and people have lost jobs and income, people still need to eat food. We are one of the only providers out there that offer a truly USDA organic product.

How critical is the role of technology in the communication to your customers? How have you used technology to engage your customers faster during this time?

Landon Eckles: I don’t think it’s ever been a better time to use technology to communicate. There is not a lot of in person anymore, so it’s all through technology. Whether that’s video, email, push notifications from a marketing perspective, and of course very active on social media to let our guest know what we are doing. From a franchise partner standpoint outside of zoom video calls and emails, we are communicating through our Juicehub network, our internal ticketing system. If FP’s have a supply chain issue, our FP’s can see if any other FP is dealing with the same issue, and if so, they can troubleshoot and address. If they are still having issues they can ticket through the system. We’ve been utilizing all types of technology. I don’t know how we would get through this without technology, it’s super crucial at this point.

Renee Israel: Modern Market is an innovative technology-driven and social-media forward brand. Our head of marketing does a great job communicating how we are meeting the needs of our guests and constituents wherever they are in all channels. This communication has been amped up with the campaign championed by co-CEO Anthony Pigliacampo to “#SaveRestaurants” which has since gone viral.  We are also participating in the “#TheGreatAmericanTakeout”, which is another industry-wide initiative encouraging consumers to order takeout on Tuesdays.

Outside of these social media channels, Modern Market’s custom-built website, loyalty app, and other communication platforms allow our marketing team to relay offers to our guests as expeditiously as possible. For example, this week, in response to grocery shelves being depleted, we started offering Grocer Boxes with the same high-quality whole ingredients we use to cook in our restaurants.  We also responded quickly to offer group options given we noticed guests were buying food to help others en masse.

What’s the role of marketing in this time of crisis? Are you communicating with your current customers as well as new customers?

Renee Israel : I am certain we have a halo effect for customer acquisition by virtue of the types of communication we are doing around “#SaveRestaurants” and “TheGreatAmericanTakeout” as well as the ways we are meeting the needs of our guests and the communities we serve in order to help as many people as possible have access to our delicious, nutritious food.

In times of prosperity, it’s a lot easier to be a leader. In times of crisis, it’s more of a challenge.

Being out in social media and having people share and participate within these campaigns as a result of crisis mode messaging, is also helping people feel that they are doing their part for social good.  We also get to rise up to inspire and educate current and potential customers, franchise candidates and the entire industry, what Modern Market is all about.

In times of prosperity, it’s a lot easier to be a leader. In times of crisis, it’s more of a challenge. I think Modern Market’s Co-CEOs and the entire leadership are doing an amazing job of navigating with the best intentions in mind for team members and guests alike.

One of our core values is radical hospitality from the inside out.  Leadership is really looking to live this in a time where that’s not so easy to do.

What guidance would you provide to the business community and brands impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Landon Eckles: First and foremost, do your research on the stimulus package and Cares act and the loans that may be available to you for small businesses.  We are applying for the PPP loans ourselves, which allows small businesses to take advantage of a forgivable loan package if you qualify.

For the most part, keep the hope. We are going to get through this, As an industry we are going to get through this. People always want to eat out at restaurants. Whether that changes in the future even a little bit, that’s an unknown. Our industry isn’t going anywhere, it’s just going to evolve. And we have to evolve with it and change with it. The best of yet to come through all of this.

Renee Israel: Going back to your original point, Adam, that some companies are doing business as usual or stopping their communication altogether, my advice is to consider a framework that finds a way to keep you and your brand in the conversation and connected to all constituents.  Even if your business is completely shut down, finding a way to authentically connect with your customers, team members and franchisees will help keep you top of mind when the pandemic storm passes and emerge as an even stronger brand.