Restaurants are taking a hard look at reality — literally. Augmented and virtual reality’s (AR/VR) emergence within the industry is helping restaurants better serve their customers and grow their brands. But they also give customers more of what they want: experiences. According to the National Restaurant Association’s top trends for 2023, experiences ranked number one out of the top 10 trends.
To understand how AR and VR technology can create experiences, it’s important to understand exactly what they are. According to Microsoft, AR is a reality “designed to add digital elements over real-world views with limited interaction.” In other words, gone are the days of customers having to wait to see a dish after it’s cooked (or better yet, peeking onto someone else’s plate). AR takes a lot of the guessing out of the ordering process by making it simple. In fact, it’s so useful that 75% of the global population is expected to be frequent AR users by 2025, according to a joint study by Snapchat and Deloitte.
VR, however, is defined by Microsoft as an “immersive experience helping to isolate users from the real world, usually via a headset device and headphones designed for such activities.” This can be key for restaurants looking to gamify their experience or take users on a journey.
Here’s how AR/VR technology is helping restaurants stand out and reach customers.
How AR/VR can be used in restaurants
Ordering made easy
Menus are one of the most significant ways brands are using AR/VR technology. With the quick scan of a QR code, menu options come to life and help take a lot of the guesswork out of ordering. By minimizing confusion and giving customers a better understanding of their order, customers can feel more confident in their selection and more excited to eat. For restaurants with unique selling points, like menus from other countries, VR can be useful for showing customers the story of a restaurant, a personalized view of the menu’s native origin, and how specialized items are made.
Increase customer engagement
AR/VR has also been helpful for brands looking to boost customer engagement. Because most brands have things they are known for, like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Colonel Sanders or McDonald’s and Ronald McDonald, AR creates the opportunity for restaurants to bring these moments to life. Say good-bye to cardboard cutouts and thought bubbles. AR/VR activations make room for the Colonel and Ronald McDonald to move and talk, helping to create memories that can form emotional connections, which are key to loyalty.
Gamifying the experience can also lead to increased customer engagement. Having a QR code that automatically redirects customers to an in-app AR experience (see the burger king example below), free goodies, and more can make them more likely to engage with the app for the next interesting find.
Enhance staff experience and improve retention
Customers aren’t the only ones who can benefit from having AR/VR technology in restaurants. Throughout the ordering process, wait staff can be inundated with questions that they may or may not know the answers to, such as portion size or allergen information. AR/VR technology can answer both of these questions without the waiter ever having to be at the table. Depending on how it’s used, brand ambassadors can verbally describe the dish to customers, reading commonly overlooked factors (like the type of oil the dish is cooked in, for instance) out loud.
AR/VR can also be used to help train back-of-house staff. Instructional videos that come to life and showcase how to make dishes, handle portion sizes and ingredient amounts, and more can make the cooking process more efficient and accurate. A study done with AR tool ServAR found that AR improved serving accuracy and consistency, factors that can have a lasting impact on staff retention and the overall staff experience.
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Examples of AR/VR in restaurant marketing
“Burn That Ad” by Burger King
Burger King used AR in one of its recent campaigns to crown itself, well, king. The fast food chain used AR technology to encourage customers to digitally burn competitor ads in their Burger King app in exchange for a free whopper. This ad works because it keeps diners engaged with the brand and creates a unique, immersive experience that literally encourages loyalty. The free whopper at the end acts as an added bonus and helps market one of the brand’s staple products to its core audience.
“Which Taco Bell Item are You?” by Taco Bell
Taco Bell marketed their new taco by integrating AR visuals of their dish within Instagram that allowed people to include their face directly in the middle, essentially becoming one with the taco or just being a taco. This was a fun, engaging, shareable way to get buyers engaged, but it was also an effective way to build their brand experience and reach Gen Zers and new customers.
Including links to AR/VR activations in your email or SMS marketing tools with Square Marketing is another way to share the love and drive users to your channels or app, which can have a subsequent impact on orders. (We never want a taco until we see one, right?)
“Immersive & Gunn” by Innis & Gunn
Innis & Gunn wanted to show their customers how impactful their beer could be, so they used virtual reality to do it. Customers were given two beers, each with its own correlating experience to showcase the different journey each beer can take you on. By transforming the beer experience, this campaign gave beer drinkers a fresh new way to enjoy an old favorite. It also set the brand apart from competitors and it also set the brand up to reach an entirely new audience.
For those consumers who may simply be huge fans of both virtual reality and beer, but unfamiliar with the Innis & Gunn brand, this campaign is incredibly attractive. This campaign also works for those who are simply looking to drink beer and willing to put up with new tech or vice versa. Thinking up ways you can attract new audiences without alienating your core audience is crucial when experimenting with AR/VR.
“Coca-Cola’s Dreamworld” by Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola is no stranger to the world of AR, and their 2022 campaign featuring musical act Tomorrowland is proof. To support the launch of their limited-edition flavor, Dreamworld, the beverage giant encouraged customers to create their own custom dreamworld featuring music performed at the Tomorrowland festival to capture what they believe a dreamworld tastes like.
The brand wasn’t shy about catering to Gen Z by emphasizing in a press statement that “Coca-Cola Dreamworld taps into Gen Z’s passion for the infinite potential of the mind.” Technology like AR/VR is a solid way to engage with younger audiences and create experiences that push your customers to try something fun and different — regardless of age — and can help keep loyal customers wondering what you’ll do next.
Because the cost of investing in AR/VR technology can vary from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on your needs, it’s understandable if this isn’t an immediate investment for your restaurant. Reaching new audiences, creating seamless experiences, and retaining your staff can still be done in other ways, including investing in an ecosystem of software tools like Square.
Tools like Square Marketing, third-party integrations through the Square App Marketplace, and the overall intuitiveness of Square technology make growing your restaurant easier if you’re looking to automate and explore new technologies. Get creative and explore the ways you can improve your overall business experience, keeping your staff and customers top of mind.