How Brands’ Pull has been Affected by the Pandemic and What Marketers Can Learn


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The COVID-19 pandemic changed consumer habits and behavior drastically, which had a big effect on the pull that businesses such as restaurants, gyms, stores and coffee shops have on their customers. Some brands actually fared better during the pandemic in terms of increasing their loyal customer base, while others struggled to get customers going the distance to visit them. To see which brands kept their pull strong (or didn’t) throughout challenges such as social distancing, a shift to digital habits and more, my company used location intelligence data to look at which brands’ customers were willing to go to great lengths to visit in Q2 2021 and compared it to how those consumers were shopping, eating, getting their coffees and working out in Q2 2019.

Here is what we found out about brand pull over a year into the pandemic and what brands can learn about marketing to consumers from the findings:

QSR: Chick-Fil-A fans reign: Chick-Fil-A has the most dedicated fans and the brand has pulled off keeping customers interested in making in-store visits as, in Q2 2021, people were traveling a median 13.43 miles to get their fried chicken fix, almost double the distance of the next most popular fast food chain.

Overall, the median distance traveled decreased between Q2 2019 and the same period in 2021 for all fast food brands, although Chick-Fil-A’s decreased by 32%, which is quite a bit less than other brands. Between 2019 and 2021, the median distance traveled decreased the most at Chipotle (49%), Panera (49%), and Starbucks (48%).

What can we learn: We might assume fewer work commutes during the pandemic are resulting in fewer lunches out away from Americans’ hometowns. For brands, this new way of how people are working and living means their business and marketing strategies need to evolve to keep pace. A really good example of a QSR brand that’s pivoting well is Panera, which has been watching and evaluating the changing needs of its customers and responding accordingly, such as by finding a way to extend its catering business to traditional, hybrid, and remote workers.

Coffee shops: People least likely to travel for Starbucks: Coffee lovers were traveling a median of only 7.33 miles to visit a Starbucks store in Q2 2021, a -48% difference from what they were traveling in Q2 2019 (median = 14.18 miles). The data shows that consumers are getting their caffeine closer to home. With fewer work commutes come fewer coffee pick-ups outside of Americans’ neighborhoods.

Here’s the median distance people were traveling to three popular coffee shops in Q2 2021 with Peet’s boasting the biggest loyalists:

  • Peet’s Coffee & Tea – 22.72 miles
  • Dunkin’ Donuts – 7.86 miles
  • Starbucks – 7.33 miles

Also: You may be surprised to learn that those seasonal drinks we all love so much don’t drive that much more foot traffic. For example, the weekend after Dunkin’ added its seasonal menu items, traffic was only up about 1%.

What can we learn: Remote and hybrid workers may be traveling less to get their morning cup of joe when they are not traveling into the office. That’s not to say that people don’t still need their work-week caffeine fix though, it’s just that marketers should consider alternative campaigns that map to evolving consumer behavior, such as drawing the attention of working parents heading home after school drop-offs.

Department stores: Neiman Marcus has the biggest loyalists: Shoppers traveled a median 26.51 miles to visit a store in Q2 2021, a 64% greater distance than the next most popular department store chain. High-end brands make up the top three department store chains based on distance traveled to visit a store, with Saks Fifth Avenue (16.17 miles) and Nordstrom (13.9 miles) placing second and third for furthest distance traveled for a visit in Q2 2021.

What can we learn: Consumers seeking the latest styles and products from top designers and brands are the most dedicated department store shoppers. After the early economic impact of the pandemic, factors such as pandemic savings and stimulus checks may have helped improve the situation for high-end department stores. Once consumers felt more confident about spending money again, we can assume there was a greater pull for people to decide on luxury (and expensive) purchases in-person versus online.

However, marketers in high-end retail shouldn’t lose sight of external factors that could change the pull brands have on consumers once again. With federal aid and unemployment benefits paused, and Americans quitting their jobs at record-high numbers, luxury retail could easily be impacted if consumers decide to save, not spend. Marketing effectively in the crucial holiday season will be even more pivotal this year.

Restaurants: People are traveling far less to get out for a meal or drink: In fact, in Q2 2019, the median miles traveled to a donut shop was 29.38. In Q2 2021, the median miles traveled was only 8.7 (down 70%).

While all restaurant styles experienced a decrease in the median miles people were traveling to visit them from Q2 2019 to Q2 2021, here are the top 5 in terms of distance people are still traveling this year:

  • Bistro – 19.69 miles
  • Italian Restaurant – 13.95 miles
  • Family Style Restaurant – 13.71 miles
  • Japanese Restaurant – 10.82 miles
  • Grill Restaurant – 10.72 miles

What we can learn: Perhaps, with fewer people going into the office, there weren’t as many colleagues surprising each other with donuts on Friday or special occasion treats. The data may reveal that while dining in restaurants is more of an option now than it was in the thick of the pandemic (before vaccines were rolling out), people are still more comfortable staying closer to home to grab a bite.

In conclusion, with fewer commutes to work and less time spent traveling, as well as consumers looking to finally shop in-person, the consumers of today are unlike any we have faced or served before in our lifetimes. Marketers can learn more about the consumer personas that mean the most to them and their business by understanding their customers’ travel patterns and the insights that can be pulled from them.

Jeff White
Jeff White is the founder and CEO of Gravy Analytics. Prior to founding Gravy, he founded several companies and led them to successful exits. These companies include mySBX (sold to Deltek in 2009) and Blue Canopy (sold to a private investment firm in 2007). Jeff has over two decades of experience leading successful companies and was awarded the D.C. Technology Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011. Jeff is passionate about building real products for real people and loves to start with a blank canvas (or whiteboard).


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