In 2023, nostalgia, loyalty and value took center stage in restaurant marketing

When it came to restaurant marketing this year, operators found success by tapping into childhood memories, boosting loyalty and playing up deals.
Hand holds out loyalty card
Restaurant marketers focused on promoting their loyalty program this year. | Art by Nico Heins.

2023 was a blast from the past.

If there’s one lesson in restaurant marketing from the year, it’s that everything old is new again. The restaurant industry happily danced with a theme of nostalgia, by embracing all things retro in 2023. The challenge, for many chains, was to reimagine classic menus, promotions and marketing elements in new and refreshing ways that still tap into the nostalgia that customers seem to love.

It's a playbook that seems to work for all generations, as nostalgic campaigns are effectively able to create a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) or second-hand nostalgia for younger diners.

McDonald’s led the charge with the return of its Adult Happy Meal promotion and Grimace's Birthday campaign. If any chain did an excellent job capitalizing on its decades-long history and memories that resonate with consumers, it’s McDonald’s.

In addition, the branding of the company’s new drive-thru beverage concept, CosMc’s, also leans into the retro aesthetic.

And other chains like Chili’s employed nostalgia in their advertisements by capitalizing on pop culture moments from the past.

For instance, Chili’s teamed up with R&B singer Brian McKnight to reimagine the iconic singer’s ballad  “Back at One,” in an ad highlighting the restaurant’s 3 for Me deal.

The reemergence of menus that remind customers of “the good old days,” is another trend in nostalgic marketing this year.

Taco Bell, for example, brought back its Volcano Menu from the 2000s and teamed up with Paris Hilton, an iconic star from the era, to market the menu.

Loyalty programs take center stage

Restaurant chains were really pushing their loyalty programs this year. Chains focused on competing to create the most rewarding system, and many restaurants launched new programs or revamped their current ones. In fact, many marketing strategies were focused around attracting diners to loyalty programs. And for good reason: Loyalty customers come into restaurants more often and spend more money.

Domino’s ran a promotion offering a free emergency pizza for rewards members when diners spent at least $7.99.

And in 2023, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King all focused their value offers on loyalty members.

Plus, many chains took the gamble on revamping their rewards programs, a bold move, as oftentimes changes to loyalty programs can upset diners.

It seems to be working out well for Domino’s, which reimagined its loyalty program in September. The revamp allowed reward members to earn points and redeem them faster.

Subway also made some big changes to its loyalty program this year. It switched to a tiered program.

Value, value, value

As consumers grew weary of inflation in 2023, restaurant chains had to push to encourage diners to continue spending their money on food away from home. And as such, when it comes to marketing, restaurants really pushed the value message.

What’s a better value than free food? Domino’s gave away $1 million worth of free pizzas to diners who had to start paying their student loans.

Some chains introduced value menus in 2023, such as Pizza Hut.

But value deals remained focused on building loyalty programs as operators strayed away from leaning into discounts too heavily amid high food costs. 

Social media trends

Social media was a great tool for marketers this year. Some social media trends were centered around restaurants, such as the Grimace shake promotion, where seemingly normal videos about the shake quickly spiraled into a horror scene. The original posts celebrating Grimace’s birthday reached billions of people. The viral trend gave a sales boost to McDonald’s.

Other social media trends found their way into restaurant marketing, too. Girl math, the meme-able idea that certain things are basically free, was an element of Pizza Hut’s aforementioned value menu promotion this year.

On a related note, boy math, or math that makes no sense, also went viral on social media this year. Jimmy John's leaned into that trend with its Boy Math Catering Bundle.

Niche merchandise collections

When it comes to restaurants merchandise collections, of course there were the classic lines featuring branded clothing but there was also a trend of niche collections this year. From Sandwich inspired home décor, to Olive Garden’s cheese grater, marketers got really creative in creating products for their brands.

Taco John’s, for instance, launched an ugly holiday sweater and an Apple Grande inspired candle for its holiday collection.

On the more strange side, Wingstop launched a bar of soap, scented like ranch dressing, in honor of National Ranch Day this year.

This story is part of Restaurant Business’ look back at 2023. Click here to read our other year-end coverage. 

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