Protecting Restaurant Brands During the Pandemic

16-11-2020

Rory O'Neill

Protecting Restaurant Brands During the Pandemic

Few industries have had to undertake as radical a transformation as the restaurant sector since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rory O’Neill reports.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage around the world, restaurateurs have been finding creative ways to adapt to the new environment while trying not to harm their brands. Panelists at the on-demand session Trends and Issues in the Food and Restaurant Industry During COVID-19 provided some examples.

Larisa Colton, Legal Director, Trademarks, Yum! Brands, Inc. (US), pointed out: “Food is an area where public perception around safety has always been an issue.” That means restaurant brands need to work doubly hard to retain consumer confidence at a time of greatly heightened anxiety over health and safety, she said.

Yum! Brands Inc. is the proprietor of several world-famous food brands, including KFC, and had to adapt quickly when one of its most valuable trademarks presented pandemic-related branding issues.

“One of the things that surprised us was the consumer feedback we started to get around our tagline IT’S FINGER LICKIN’ GOOD®,” Ms. Colton said. Suddenly, the company had consumers asking: “What are you doing, KFC?”

“Suddenly, the company had consumers asking: ‘What are you doing, KFC?’” Larisa Colton, Yum! Brands Inc.

“For now,” she said, “we’re not going to talk about how finger-lickin’ good our chicken is.”

But the company still faced the problem of how to maintain the value of one of its most important marks—“particularly a mark that we work really hard to enforce, as it’s often infringed,” Ms. Colton said.

The solution was to blur out the words “finger lickin’” and ask customers to “fill in the blanks” with what they love about the food.

“It’s a fun brand exercise for us,” Ms. Colton said, “but we’re also anxious to bring the tagline back.”

“What can we do to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible?” - Charles Chen, Panda Restaurant Group

While not every restaurant’s main slogan adopted unwanted connotations during the pandemic, all brands have had to adapt. For the Panda Express chain of Chinese restaurants, like countless other food outlets, the main question was: “What can we do to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible?” said panelist Charles Chen, Intellectual Property Attorney, Panda Restaurant Group (US).

The company has adapted to offer a “contactless experience.” It has rolled out measures such as branded “tamper-evident” seals for contactless delivery, to reassure customers that their food has been untouched since leaving the restaurant.

It has also revamped the layout of its stores to enable social distancing. An important part of the Panda Express brand was customers’ ability to sample its menu in-store, Mr. Chen said, noting: “I think that’s what’s missing, but we always try to ask, and if they want to, we can add it into their order.”

Nonetheless, he is particularly proud of the staff who remain committed to maintaining full health and safety standards, including always wearing masks in a hot kitchen. The company also has introduced “daily wellness checks,” with virtual calls with doctors and nurses.

“Consumers are seeing the effort and energy that your companies are putting into the contactless experience. It helps with brand protection and brand loyalty.” Stephanie Vaccari, Baker & McKenzie

All of this matters to the brand, as panel moderator Stephanie Vaccari, Partner, Baker & McKenzie LLC (Canada), pointed out.

“This elevates your brand during the pandemic, because consumers are seeing the effort and energy that your companies are putting into the contactless experience,” Ms. Vaccari said. “It helps with brand protection and brand loyalty.”

Until the pandemic ends, restaurant brands will no doubt continue to adapt to meet the challenging circumstances. But as the panelists demonstrated, the food industry is not short of creative solutions.

Brands, INTA 2020, pandemic, COVID-19, restaurant, KFC, trademark infringement, IP attorney, food industry, consumers

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