How brands can win in the away from home sector post-covid & transform their strategy for 2022:  An expert’s view

20 September 2021
Author: Linzi McGuire

Away from home (AFH) is a key sector that was impacted by Covid, with the country forced to navigate the closures of hospitality, offices, education, and leisure. A shift towards eating at home led to a growth in the QSR (quick service restaurants) and takeaway sector, which continues to be sustained post-covid. In order to meet new demands, many pubs and restaurants reinvented themselves and businesses had to rethink their sales approach with a move to online. With the broader sector opening up again and experiencing rapid recovery, now is the time for brands to plan strategies in this booming channel. Hear insights from our experts, Pat Bramich, Account Controller for Britvic Away from Home, Gregor Gillon, Account Controller for Unilever Away from Home and Gordon Neil, Group Strategy and Marketing Director on why it’s important for brands to adapt to new ways of selling and explore options out with the traditional channels.


The away from home retail sector has seen significant shifts over the last 18 months due to the pandemic. What do you think are the biggest changes that have occurred and what should brands consider when they prepare their FY22 strategy?  


Gregor Gillon, Away from Home Account Controller 

One of the biggest shifts the away from home industry experienced was in the QSR sector - so this is quick service restaurants, takeaways and fast food. And let’s not forget about pubs too.  

The key thing that changed in the last 12 - 18 months is that a lot of AFH businesses had to change their business models when their outlets closed and they could no longer offer eat-in facilities. When Covid hit most of that eat-in experience was not viable anymore as the public were either restricted from going into outlets or we were choosing to eat at home. So, one of the big changes we’ve seen in this sector was a move to online.   

The amount of outlets that moved a proportion of their business online through the likes of delivery services like Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber Eats is significant and it happened almost overnight.  Outlet strategies have shifted from offering primarily in person dining, to focusing more on their online customer base, and more recently it has started to shift again to more of a balance between both.  

In the last two or three months, the industry has started to reopen with a real rush back. There is an opportunity for brands to take advantage of the fact that consumers are back and keen to get out again.  

Even with the reopening of food and drink outlets where they can serve walk in customers again, outlets should continue to focus on their online strategy, and this is where brands can support. There are still opportunities to sustain and increase sales online if the right deals and product are on offer – they need to find ways to stand out across these online ordering platforms to make their menus and products look more attractive, valuable and convenient to consumers over their competition. That’s where field teams can support to develop relationships with these outlets, develop their menu offerings to carry client branded products and support with their delivery strategy to increase sales. 

Businesses have been forced to innovate, which is always the case when they’re faced with a crisis. 


Pat Bramich, Out of Home Controller: 

Let's talk about workplace, adult education and health outlets within the away from home sector. Those three channels have been the most negatively affected by the pandemic. People were working from home, students were studying from home doing virtual classes and the public weren’t allowed in to hospitals unless they were a patient. This meant from a workplace, leisure and education out of home perspective, sales fell off a cliff for a point during the pandemic. There were no opportunities for field teams to call in those channels. Colleagues were either furloughed or shifted into other channels such as grocery or convenience for a few months. Now that hospitality has opened back up, it’s great but there’s still a tentative approach. The workplace sector is starting to open back up with people returning to offices, but it will take a long time for habits to return to the way they were pre-covid. In blue collar sites like factories where workers must be on site, we’re still finding that catering hasn’t fully opened up to pre pandemic levels. Also, universities are starting to allow students and faculty back on campus but they must be careful about how they manage catering facilities to avoid large crowds congregating. It’s a tough environment but we’re starting to re-engage with outlets in this channel now to understand if they are fully open, if they are allowing people on site, how many people they are expecting on site and if their catering facilities are opening back up fully or partially and on what timeline. This gives us insight into the opportunities for our clients and helps us understand how our teams can best support them in this sector. 


What approach should brands take post-covid in away from home and there any new opportunities they can take advantage of?  


Pat Bramich, Out of Home Controller 

In places like universities and colleges, campuses still want to be able to provide catering facilities for students, but they need explore different and safe ways of doing that. It could be looking at providing an efficient grab and go solution which means people don't need to come in and sit down. In a lot of cases, digital technology may improve this. It’s our job to understand how we can we support these sites in conjunction with our client’s brands to ensure they have the right products for their set up. The opportunity for brands is to develop relationships with these sites and understand how they can best support them on an ongoing basis.  

There’s also an opportunity to look at other areas out of home. Takeaway has performed really well during 2020/21, so from a brand point of view this gives us an opportunity to look at new sectors of the market that we haven’t engaged with before at a field sales level. Leisure is another area for brands to consider in their FY22 strategies with the rise in staycations. We know more people will go abroad next year but we expect holidays in the UK and Ireland to remain strong. Leisure has seen a bounce since restrictions have been lifted so there is opportunity for brands to engage here now it’s fully open and ready to do business. 


Gregor Gillon, Away from Home Account Controller 

What our teams have been trying to do is support the outlets by developing relationships with them to give category advice in addition to just selling product. The environment has changed a lot so it’s up to us to help steer them in the right direction.  

We also support the brands by providing data and insight back. We talk to them a lot about the different types of offerings that work best in outlet, we make sure they are considering route to market, and we also support them with equipment rentals into outlet and ensure training is up to date. With the shift to online, brands need to consider how to set up menus and plan strategies for promoting deals to appeal to customers online as well as in the outlet, in partnership with the outlet. 


Gordon Neil, Group Strategy & Marketing Director 

The starting point for brands is looking at the position you were in two years ago when the sector was open and Covid wasn't on the horizon. A lot of brands were prioritising the away from home sector as one of their growth sectors. Now that the sector is back open, brands need a strategic focus on what they want to get out of that sector, what the growth opportunities are and understanding where they exist. Two years ago, a lot of brands, particularly in FMCG, were focused on areas like business and industry which would include health care and education.

Business and industry is not fully back yet, there's just not enough people in offices to sustain those in-office locations that were serving food. Whereas, you take channels like takeaway, quick service restaurants, pubs, bars and restaurants and they become more important because more people are going to them. Therefore, a shift in the channels is important, but the overall objective remains the same which is how do you get breadth of distribution and visibility across all the different types of outlets that your customer might visit? This could be a supermarket, convenience store, a discount store and away from home locations. Most brands are and should be thinking about where and how they drive distribution in this sector to gain visibility of product.  

The factor that has changed for some brands is simply the sector itself. If your brand is in soft drinks, confectionary, crisps and snacks, then two years ago the business and industry channel was really important because you might have had 2,000-3,000 people in an office site on a daily basis. That's not the case now and brands should consider where these people are spending instead. Now, they may be visiting different locations such as a takeaway or a restaurant. They may also visit a local convenience or grocery store. It's not necessarily away from home, but you need to cover that breadth of outlets to really drive visibility of your brand and capture the consumer. I'd recommend brands think about how to get depth of visibility and know what channels are most important for their products. 


How can agencies best support brands to maximise sales in this new retail environment?  


Pat Bramich, Out of Home Controller 

Gathering insight, engaging with outlet owners and finding out what their plans are for the next three to six months, which may include reopening is really valuable. We need to understand where a brand’s customers are in that process and discover the best ways to support them in the new world and new ways of operating. Outlets need to provide new ways of offering food and drink options and we need to be able to help them with this, while brands need to keep their outlet partners interested in new products and promotions, so there’s an opportunity there to present that to them. Once we understand their new ways of operating, we may have to adapt the way we operate our teams to meet their needs and set ourselves up differently to deliver the best service. We have to be flexible and our teams need to be ready for any changes. 

Gregor Gillon, Away from Home Account Controller 

The away from home channel can be quite seasonal and one of the main things brands are looking for is access to good people who can help them sell more in the outlets they want to get visibility in during their peak seasons. That doesn’t always mean feet on the street - it could be a mix of resources including telephony, online and live chat function. Ultimately, it’s about flexibility as there are so many ways to access key decision makers now the key lies in finding the best way to do that. Whether those decision makers are in a farm shop, café or QSR restaurantit comes down to skilled teams who are good at what they do to meet the brand objectives. Agencies need to be focused on people and providing a range of services that brands can dip in and out of as required to access key decision makers in that environment. Having the right insight and database of knowledge is crucial to prioritise the correct outlets for brands to tailor their strategy and direct their products to the right customers. 


Gordon Neil, Group Strategy & Marketing Director 

I think agencies are best placed to support by putting teams on the ground to help build that distribution and visibility. For most brands it's a sector that's either relatively new to them or one that they've not fully exploited yet. It's not the same in retail - you need a different approach, different contact methods, different hours of work and different people to really succeed in these channels. It changes slightly by individual channel within the sector. The person who's successful in a pub is not necessarily the same person that is successful in a leisure outlet, who is not necessarily the same person who's successful in a takeaway. There’s a real opportunity for brands to leverage expertise that agencies have built in that space. I look at our business and think about factors such as all of the experience we have built across leisure, quick service restaurant, across the aggregators and take away. That's something that you could leverage into helping other brands go and sell more in the sector. If a brand is starting from scratch or working with an agency who have never done it before, there's a real learning curve. We've been doing this for six years now and we really understand how to go and sell in this sector. This is where agencies can support but it's got to be the right agency.  

It's a completely different sector to work in because you need to use different resource models and different resources. You need to think about where you bring telesales into the mix versus field sales and consider how you integrate those resources to really unlock value in the sector. Also, if you're going to go and do quick service restaurants, and particularly the ones that are attached to the big aggregators, that resource needs to know how to do menu additions, set up meal deals and sell to those outlets. It's completely different to walking across the door of a supermarket or convenience store. I think agencies can definitely help, but only the ones that have got the right expertise and that’s something I’m certain that we've got because we've been doing it for so long. 

With the away from home sector on the fast tracked growth path, it’s time for brands to take advantage of the new opportunities this unlocks. Our field marketing teams have the skills and expertise to help you succeed and can help you align your products to the shifts in the marketplace. 


Get in touch for a 1:1 chat and let us transform your FY22 strategy in this growing sector: