Comment by Peter Martin

Experience used to be everything. Going out at the weekend was all about finding something new and different – somewhere that would impress your mates. But, no longer it seems.

When Britain’s pubs and restaurants start to reopen in July, consumers say they’ll be looking for something more sedate - and safe. Familiarity, reliability and trust will be the watchwords.

People are cautious, even the most avid fans of eating and drinking out pre-COVID are apprehensive about venturing out again. CGA’s most recent BrandTrack survey shows that less than 30% of those who usually eat out multiple times a week say they would be comfortable going out again once restrictions are lifted.

Socialising in small groups is seen to be the most acceptable occasion, while crowds are definitely to be avoided. Catching up with friends is the activity they say they would be most comfortable with, followed by personal celebrations. Staying local is another big theme, perhaps not surprising as working from home is going to be a feature of business life for some time.

So where are the places the British public are most likely to start going out to, apart from the local pub or restaurant? People want reassurance, and to be confident they are safe.

Trust is going to be a major driver of choice and those brands that have already demonstrated reliability, the tried and tested, one would expect to be in pole position.

Among food-led businesses in the most recent BrandTrack poll, the brand that received the highest rating for trust among its customers was Côte. Not what you would call a middle of the road brand, but with its Côte At Home promotion running during lockdown, allowing fans to cook pre-prepared dishes at home, it looks to have a strong base from which to launch itself back into the market.

Of course, Côte doesn’t have widespread coverage of the country, and it probably doesn’t need it. Among the large scale operators in the top 10 for trust you also find PizzaExpress, Greggs and a clutch of M&B pub brands, including Toby, Harvester and Miller & Carter.

Another chain that gets good marks for trust is Carluccio’s, suggesting that its potential new owners may have something to play with.

Côte, Miller & Carter and Carluccio’s, along with northern-based Italian brand Gusto, also top the list for cleanliness – a more important factor in these nervous times, one might suggest.

Reliability is another marker to watch, and under that category the high street behemoth JD Wetherspoon’s makes an appearance, even for food, alongside the likes of Cote, Greggs and a cluster of pub restaurant names. Among just drink-led businesses, it is seen as the most reliable name.

Whether the negative publicity that surrounded the pub brand at the start of the crisis causes any long-term damage to its reputation, time will tell. Its core market may not be affected. But, CGA’s BrandTrack research does show that the choice of where to visit is likely to be influenced by how brands behaved during lockdown.

In all, 75% of consumers say they will be less likely to visit chains that have handled the COVID outbreak poorly, while the same percentage say they will be more willing to buy from a brand that has acted, in their opinion, ethically. In addition, 70% say they will be more likely to visit a brand that has offered services during the crisis, like producing free hand santiser or donating stock.

There are numerous businesses, big and small, that have been ‘doing their bit’ either nationally or within their local communities. On the national stage, Leon and Brewdog have perhaps been the two most high-profile participants.

How brand perceptions evolve in the coming months is going to be fascinating to track, but caution and the need for reassurance are likely to remain major factors in consumer decision-making for some time to come. Although the public’s choice of venue may initially be driven more by familiarity and safety, will those factors on their own be enough to sustain patronage longer term?

Is there still room for some ‘wow’ in their lives? CGA research has highlighted, for example, that cocktail drinking at home has grown during lockdown, showing that established pub and bar habits haven’t died.

While the environment and the company might be familiar, a little bit of excitement on the food and drink front might not go amiss to relieve lockdown fatigue come July, and provide that point of difference what will become more vital once competition starts to crank up.

     

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