University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Getting the Message Across

A "Clean & Safe" sign with a checkmark being set on a table.
April 12, 2022  |  By Abbi Ross, Garrett Rybak, Alicia Johnson, Scot Burton

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Like the rest of the world, the restaurant industry was up a certain creek without a paddle when the pandemic hit. 
The importance of communication with their patrons became increasingly clear as restaurant owners navigated the new waters and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid out guideline after guideline. But the best way to get those messages across and share information about their protocols was hazier. Although the CDC provided ample information, the recommended COVID-19 protective messages varied according to who was responsible for carrying them out (e.g., customer, firm, or general public) and whether restaurants offered indoor dining, takeout, or delivery options.  
In “How Restaurant Protective Ad Messaging Can Increase Patronage Intentions during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Conditional Serial Mediation and COVID-19 Consumer Concern,” Garrett Rybak,  Alicia M. Johnson, and Scot Burton analyze the different kinds of messaging restaurants can use and their effectiveness during a public health crisis.  
While prior research provides insight into how consumers respond to different messaging orientations (Jetten et al. 2020; Kim, Cho, and Youn 2021; Van Bavel et al. 2020; Verlegh et al. 2021; Nan and Heo 2007), the question of how different message types impact consumer attitudes and patronage intentions for restaurants during a pandemic remains unaddressed. By examining how differences in an individual’s level of COVID-19 concern affect risk perceptions and ad messaging, as well as pandemic severity over time, Rybak, Johnson and Burton address this question and provide a basis for future research.  

What messages will consumers hear? 

Advertising protective messages that promote available dining options during a pandemic carry the potential to positively or negatively affect patronage intentions depending on an individual’s level of concern about COVID-19. Should businesses emphasize their outdoor dining options? What about creating a curbside pick-up option? If they offer indoor seating, will that upset some patrons and make them think the restaurant does not take the pandemic seriously? More importantly, do the restaurants communicate protective measures focused on what customers are required to do to dine at the restaurant or measures focused on what their employees are required to do? 
To address these issues, the authors examine the roles of the three message orientations suggested by the CDC that could be used while advertising: 

  • Firm-centric messaging, which emphasizes the restaurant’s responsibility for protecting its patrons through precautions like performing daily employee health screenings.  
  • Customer-centric messaging, which emphasizes the customer’s responsibility for protecting other patrons through restaurant-required protocols, such as wearing masks until seated.   
  • Community-centric messaging, which emphasizes the role of the general public to protect one another through precautions like social distancing.  

Given these message orientations, the authors expected that these messages would result in increased business relative to a control using no protective messaging. They also expected the purchase intentions to be affected by the restaurant’s dining options (takeout, delivery, or dine-in, etc.) and how much contact would be required between the consumer and the restaurant.  
The authors, keeping the different message orientations in mind, developed hypotheses concerning ad messaging and used them in two studies to find out more about how customers will respond. The authors predicted that protective messaging would increase restaurant patronage when the level of customer contact was low (takeout, curbside, etc.) but would not when the level of contact was high (dining inside the restaurant). Additionally, they expected that protective messaging would increase the consumer’s perception of the restaurant’s concern for the customer and their attitude towards the restaurant. The authors proposed that consumer concern and attitude will help explain why patronage intentions involving lower customer contact are affected by the protective messaging. Lastly, as consumers’ level of concern about COVID-19 increases, the researchers expected the messaging effects to become stronger. For example, someone with low concern about COVID-19 would not likely change their patronage intentions based on protective messaging, but someone very concerned would.   
The first study demonstrated that proactive messaging could create favorable effects for restaurants especially when they offer dining options with little customer contact (takeout). The second study revealed that protective messaging increased patronage for the options with minimal customer contact (takeout) but had minimal effects for moderate (dining on an outdoor patio) and high (dining inside) customer contact options. Furthermore, results showed that individuals with high COVID-19 concern became more likely to patronize the restaurant as the level of customer contact decreased. The authors found that offering options with minimal customer contact (takeout, curbside, delivery, etc.) while advertising protective practices led to the highest levels of patronage intentions regardless of an individual’s concern about COVID-19. This “win-win” scenario has the potential to aid restaurants during a pandemic when customer concern can vary widely and change rapidly while ensuring they offer operating procedures that keep employees and customers safe.   

Future implications for restauranteurs and business owners  

There is no yellow brick road leading to the perfect option for restaurant owners to choose when considering their messaging options. During the height of a pandemic, there are pros and cons of each option. For example, customers may have felt more comfortable at restaurants that advertise strict safety measures inside the establishment compared to those that did not. Alternatively, what might work in one region or for one type of business may not for another. It is clear, though, that using ad messaging to promote safe practices is beneficial in times of high transmission, especially when dining options with minimal customer contact are offered.  
Although cases have declined, business owners will still need to pay attention to CDC updates for their area. After all, many health experts including Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the U.S. president, contend that another pandemic is very likely in the future. As such, restaurants that do not offer takeout options should have plans in place to implement low customer contact options quickly to minimize the impact of declining indoor dining. 
Preventive practices and promotion have proven to be key to increasing safety and consumer patronage during a time when nothing was guaranteed and so many restaurants had to close their doors. By understanding their options and the best way to communicate with their customers, restaurant owners can avoid once more being up a creek without a paddle and without a clue as to what to do.  

Post Researchers/Author:

Garrett RybakGarrett Rybak is a third-year doctoral student, Department of Marketing, Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas. His research interests include consumer behavior and decision-making regarding consumer health and well-being issues. His current research examines the public policy and retail implications for consumer responses to nutrient content and processing labeling claims on food packages and other promotions. His research has appeared in the Journal of Business Research and the Journal of Advertising. 

Alicia JohnsonAlicia Johnson is a fourth year doctoral student in Marketing at the University of Arkansas. Her research currently explores how consumers generate financial values and respond to advertised financial information. In addition to this line of inquiry, she also explores how consumers respond to marketing communications to make food consumption decisions. In her future research, she strives to develop interventions firms can implement to improve consumer well-being. Prior to joining the program, her work spanned roles in personal finance, business management, and supply chain management. Alicia earned an MBA from Clarkson University and a BBA from SUNY Canton. 

Scot BurtonScot Burton, Distinguished Professor and Tyson Chair in Food and Consumer Products Retailing, joined the University of Arkansas in 1993. Professor Burton’s research interests include consumer health and well-being issues, price perceptions, consumer response to advertising and sales promotion, and measurement issues associated with survey research.  He has published more than 100 refereed journal articles appearing in publications such as the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, and Journal of Retailing. In 2020, he received the American Marketing Association Lifetime Achievement Award in Marketing & Society, an award given to individuals who exemplify outstanding scholarship in the fields of Marketing and Society, Public Policy, and/or Marketing Ethics for contributions over their career. During his time in the Walton College, he has received the Outstanding All-Around Faculty Award on four occasions.  


Abbi RossAbbi Ross is a recent graduate from the University of Arkansas's journalism program. She served as editor-in-chief of The Arkansas Traveler, the campus newspaper, and has since worked as a city reporter for The Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. She is currently an intern at The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington D.C.