What’s so “Virtual” about “Virtual Brands”?
“Virtual Brands” are a hot topic these days. The phrase is a catchy way to describe a delivery-only food concept, one without a public-facing brick and mortar location. While these brands may not have a physical location, there is REAL food being made and delivered by REAL people. Good or bad, there is an experience to be had, a relationship that is formed between that consumer and the brand itself. Is Hello Fresh a “virtual brand” because you have to order your meal through an app? Is Coca-Cola a virtual brand because there’s not a physical storefront? Of course not. These brands form relationships with people across all marketing channels regardless of where their products are consumed. The delivery-only concepts who understand this will last. The rest will fade away as their SEO drops and they realize that they’ve failed to deliver an experience that keeps people ordering again and again.
The risk in referring to these brands as “virtual” is that it implies that these delivery concepts need to place an emphasis on their visual identity and online presence in a way that traditional restaurants do not. The reality is that all successful brands, especially restaurants, need to live in a “virtual” world. Gen Z has just graduated from college. They have never known a time without a smartphone. They do not differentiate between their online interactions and those in the real world. They seamlessly move their conversations from text to game to classroom to restaurant. If your brand doesn’t exist meaningfully online, you won’t exist for many people. It used to be that restaurants opened their doors, and guests came in. Now, restaurants must greet their guests online, meeting them first where they are.
It is an understandably difficult transition for many restaurateurs. What happens in the four walls, how a restaurant makes you feel, that is what makes restaurants amazing. Restaurants are one of the last places where meaningful human interaction, craft and conversation meet. I’ve always said to our restaurant clients, “We can get the guests in for the first time, but it’s up to you to get them back.” This is why most of the restaurant industry was ill-prepared to communicate with guests during the pandemic. They were experts at delivering an experience within their space, but most failed to fully develop their brand outside their four walls. A restaurant’s website and social media channels are not only valuable marketing tools, they are and will continue to be the first point of guest contact. As the digital space becomes even more where people “live,” their online interactions shape how they feel about a brand. It is no longer the person greeting them at the door sets the tone for their experience. We are living in a virtual world, and all successful brands must think of themselves as virtual.