Sonic: Analyzing Customer Behavior Change During Covid

Sonic jumped from the 22nd most popular restaurant chain to #5 in a matter of weeks. How can Sonic understand who their new customers are and retain that audience as the economy moves back to a new normal?

Sonic, the American drive-in fast-food chain, is one of the few businesses that have thrived during the restrictions of the pandemic. The restaurant’s unique format lends itself to success when dine-in is less popular, jumping from the 22nd most popular chain to the 5th in a matter of weeks according to foot traffic metrics captured by Ubermedia.


Visitation to QSRs pre vs post-COVID
Visitation to QSRs pre vs post-COVID. Sonic has a massive jump in visitation, moving from a ranking of 22 to 5. Source: Ubermedia.

How can Sonic understand who their new customers are and retain that audience as the economy moves back to a new normal?


Step 1: Identify Sonic’s unique customer set before COVID.

By fusing mobile movement data from Ubermedia with lifestyle segmentation data from Spatial.ai, we can build a Pre-Covid Sonic Customer Profile. This profile provides insights into the types of people visiting Sonic locations prior to stay-at-home orders. In other words, this is the restaurant’s original customer base.



Note on scores: 50th percentile is the national average. Therefore, a Praise & Worship score of 69.62 means Sonic over-indexes for that segment by 19.62 percentile.

By matching the Sonic visitation data with Geosocial segments, we immediately see ranked patterns emerge:


  • Dense Urbanicity & Social: Praise & Worship, Networking, Hip Hop Culture, and Party Life are all segments that lean urban in geography and are social in nature.
  • Fast Food Affinity: Praise & Worship, Engine Enthusiasts, and Deal Seekers all have a positive correlation with fast food sales.
  • Families: Connected Motherhood, Praise & Worship, and Family Affinity indicate people are coming from neighborhoods where family plays a prominent role.
Sonic geosocial visitor profile
Pre-COVID Sonic Customer Profile


Now that we know Sonic’s original customer profile, how has their customer base changed since stay-at-home orders were given? Are they getting more of the same customer or a totally new audience?


Related: Coffee Chain Segments Loyalty Customers to Optimize Digital Advertising

Step 2: Quantify the change in customer base after COVID.

A loyal customer base

We don’t see a heavy indication of change in the top and bottom five segments.


The top five remain both heavily urban and “social” in nature. The people coming to Sonic before COVID continue to go to Sonic afterwards.


Therefore, to the extent that Sonic is already focusing on their core segments in site selection, local marketing, and broad advertising, they should continue to nurture these segments in the same way.


Top and bottom 5 segments post-covid for Sonic
The percentile change for the top five and bottom five segments. Coffee Connoisseur & Pieces of History saw the most dramatic drop but already had a negative relationship with visiting Sonic.


A new emerging audience

When we look at the customer segments with the greatest change, a clear story emerges; one that is nearly diametrically opposite of their Georgia core customer:

  • Wealth: These segments have a stronger relationship with high income compared to pre-covid. Note: many higher income segments actually went down: Wine Lovers, Trendy Eats, Wealth Signaling.
  • Suburban Mom Behavior: We now see an emerging customer profile of Connected Motherhood, Organized Sports, and Dog Lovers.
  • Rurality: We see Farm Culture, and Outdoor Adventures (primarily rural segments) rise.


Post-Covid: segments with greatest percentile change
Family was a high characteristic for Sonic before. Now it seems the family segments have doubled down (Connected Motherhood, Family Affinity, My Crew). Additionally, Sonic is finding increasing appeal with people exhibiting rural behavior.


Step 3: Design strategies to retain the new audience.

So, how can Sonic capture and retain their newly found audience? We’ll now discuss possible strategies informed by this new customer profile.


Differentiate strategy by store profile

Each store has a unique customer base. At some stores, there is an opportunity to cultivate loyalist segments such as the Sonic at 1436 Moreland Avenue. At other stores, there is an opportunity to focus on the emerging customer base, such as 11960 GA-92, Woodstock.


Family Affinity over 11960 GA-92, Woodstock, GA 30188
Family Affinity over 11960 GA-92, Woodstock, GA 30188. There's opportunity to the north to engage the new audience.


Hip Hop Culture over 1463 Moreland Ave SE, Atlanta, GA 30316
Hip Hop Culture over 1463 Moreland Ave SE, Atlanta, GA 30316. Very high scores for one of the loyalist segments.


Target Emerging Areas

Although likely an afterthought before, we have learned there is a “sleeper” audience in some suburban and rural segments that are showing new interest, and traveling greater distances after their traditional options have changed during stay at home orders.


Farm Culture over 11960 GA-92, Woodstock, GA 30188
Farm Culture over 11960 GA-92, Woodstock, GA 30188. The high scores to the east and west represent an opportunity to reach more rural segments.


Family Related Messaging

The data shows Sonic mattered to families before the pandemic, and now has become increasingly important during stay at home orders. There is an opportunity to focus on family-related messaging across stores.

A well positioned Sonic ad for families during the stay-at-home era.


Focus menu on larger ticket items

With higher income families going to Sonic, there is an opportunity to focus the menu to match the needs of these customers looking for satisfaction in a pinch.


This strategy is dependent on the customer profile of the trade area. We see Dog Lovers—one of our highest income segments—showing up at the 93rd percentile around the Cobb Parkway Sonic Location, making it a good candidate for this approach.


Dog Lovers over 2705 Cobb Parkway, NW, Kennesaw, GA
Dog Lovers over 2705 Cobb Parkway, NW, Kennesaw, GA. The prevalence of this high-income segment suggests an opportunity to add larger ticket items to the menu.


Conclusion

Sonic has an opportunity to benefit from changing consumer behavior.


Sonic’s meteoric rise in popularity during COVID is a great test case for how a brand can stand to benefit from rapidly changing consumer behavior. 


Using Geosocial, it is possible to capture the nuanced changes in customer profile and magnify that opportunity by designing strategies around customer interests.

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Lyden Foust
CEO / Spatial.ai

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