How Creativity is Fueling Food Delivery Brand Battles Through the Pandemic and Beyond

DoorDash and Uber Eats made big bets with Super Bowl ads, which appear to be paying off according to an Ad Age-Harris Poll survey

By Ann-Christine Diaz and Jessica Wohl | Ad Age | March 4, 2021

During the Super Bowl this year, two of the biggest brand rivals, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, opted out of running ads, the first time in two decades both decided not to appear. But competition did heat up in a different category, with food delivery platforms DoorDash and Uber Eats both making their Big Game debut with spots featuring high-profile celebrities.

The glitzy marketing represents a new front in the food delivery war as the brands battle to win—and keep—the attention of at-home eaters, a task that might become more challenging as the pandemic eases and more away-from-home dining options return.

DoorDash made its Super Bowl premiere with the help of Daveed Diggs and the Muppets of “Sesame Street,” while Uber Eats turned to “Saturday Night Live” legends Wayne and Garth from “Wayne’s World”to star in its ad. Meanwhile, Postmates (which Uber Eats bought in December), made its own National Football League play by enlisting Jerry Rice to catch a flying burrito in a campaign running on digital.

The Super Bowl appearances are a culmination of what’s been an outpouring of creative brand building from the category over the last year, largely fueled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“For a lot of people, online food delivery has gone from being a bit of a novelty or an occasional treat to a core service for daily life during the pandemic,” says DyShaun Muhammad, global head of brand marketing for Uber Eats at Uber Technologies. “This has encouraged brands in our space to go beyond simply educating consumers about the category, to focus more on building salience. Doing so—and breaking through—demands creativity.”

The investments in marketing and creativity came at a prime time. Usage of third-party food delivery services has grown during the pandemic. According to a new Ad Age-Harris Poll survey, 66% of consumers said they order from such services, up from 41% having ordered from one of the apps before the pandemic. Still, 71% of consumers say they order from restaurants directly.

Both Super Bowl spots were generally well received by ad viewers. In the USA Today Ad Meter, DoorDash’s spot ranked 11th out of 57, while Uber Eats’ spot came in 21st.

And the Big Game ads appear to still be paying off. The Ad Age-Harris Poll survey was conducted Feb. 26-March 1 (about three weeks after the Super Bowl) and found that 43% of U.S. adults who recalled seeing DoorDash’s Super Bowl spot said they order food from third-party apps or services at least once a week, as do 38% of those who recalled seeing the Uber Eats Super Bowl spot. Among the total group surveyed, just 28% order from such services at least once a week. (The poll surveyed 1,074 U.S. adults.)

Uber Eats appears to be winning the most awareness from its Super Bowl campaign, variations of which continued to get TV airplay throughout February, according to ad-tracker iSpot.TV. The Ad Age-Harris Poll survey showed 43% of respondents reporting they’d seen the Wayne’s World-themed spot from Uber Eats, while just 32% recalled seeing the Sesame Street-themed spot from DoorDash.

In the long term, Muhammad says that in building the Uber Eats brand, creativity has made a difference. The company’s “Tonight I’ll Be Eating” campaign, which features humorous ads starring unexpected celebrity pairings, has been running for three years, starting in the Asia-Pacific region and more recently, branching out to the states last year with the debut of the Star Wars and Star Trek-inspired showdown starring Sir Patrick Stewart and Mark Hamill.

“We have been pleased to see that in most countries where we have placed a sustained focus on more breakthrough creative, we have been able to either improve our category position or sustain our leadership in the face of heavy competitive spend,” Muhammad says. “We believe that investing in strong creative and highlighting it for a sustained period of time yields the results we’re looking for.”

Doing their part

An ongoing theme of late in the platforms’ marketing has been how brands have been helping to give back to local partners and the community.

“The pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of our marketing,” says Kevin Byrd, creative director of Postmates at Uber. Last February, the brand halted a new campaign it had launched two weeks prior, opting for messages geared toward merchant, driver and customer safety. Postmates then debuted efforts focused on supporting local restaurants, including a Black-owned merchant collection. “Postmates is generally an optimistic, clever brand, but we know when it’s time to be a sincere advocate for good in the world,” Byrd says.

DoorDash and Uber Eats have made similar shifts. “The last 12 months have been incredibly challenging for individuals and brands alike—we’re in a pandemic, we’ve seen political upheaval, and there’s been a renewed focus on racial equity,” says Uber Eats’ Muhammad. “So as marketers, this forces us to think hard about what role we want to play in this context and how we want to show up for our consumers. For us, that has meant a focus on supporting local communities and celebrating the many ways food can bring joy into our lives—all with health and safety top of mind.”

Uber Eats took the “famous pairs” theme from its “Tonight I’ll Be Eating” campaign to the Super Bowl with a new concept— “Eat Local,” in which Wayne and Garth, played by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, encouraged viewers to patronize their local restaurants by ordering through Uber Eats,  of course. The campaign later expanded with more iterations in which the characters gave shout-outs to specific restaurants in a series of targeted local ads.

In the fall of 2019, DoorDash’s first work from its creative agency of record, The Martin Agency, was a playful, multimedia campaign highlighting the diversity of foods on offer through the service. But in 2020, the brand’s messages took a decidedly community-focused bent. They included the “Open for Delivery” effort that debuted in March and the “Reopen for Delivery” program launched in October, in which the brand has been helping restaurants forced to suspend operations during the pandemic get back into business through delivery.

The campaign kicked off with a documentary from The Martin Agency, “Southside Magnolia,” which charted how the shuttered Krazy Hog BBQ in Chicago got back on its feet with the help of DoorDash. Another campaign, via We Believers, gave back to both the struggling art world and strapped restaurants, allowing patrons to bid on works by placing food orders on DoorDash. And in February, the brand debuted a $2 million initiative focused on bolstering women-, immigrant- and people of color-owned restaurants through the Main Street Strong Accelerator, giving 100 restaurateurs a $20,000 grant each and providing them with an eight-week course to help them build their businesses.

Grubhub, which has shown the animated joy of delivery during the pandemic in its “Delivery Dance” campaign since November, is also giving back in new ways. In February, it announced the first 20 recipients of its $10,000 grants for drivers, and in March it announced expanded support of women-led restaurants. Grubhub plans to show a free concert on March 26 featuring Megan Thee Stallion, Noah Cyrus and King Princess, and viewers can scan customized QR codes during the show for offers and to spur Grubhub to donate up to $100,000 to World Central Kitchen.

Share gains

Even before the Super Bowl, the industry saw exponential growth as people who were home more often opted to have restaurant meals delivered. In the fourth quarter of 2020, Grubhub delivered 48% sales growth, while Uber Eats revenue soared 224% and DoorDash jumped an even heftier 226%.

DoorDash is winning the market share battle. It gained share in 2020 and finished January 2021 with 53% of the market, followed by Uber Eats with 32% and Grubhub with 13%, according to Edison Trends data. DoorDash’s share includes Caviar, which it bought in 2019, and Uber Eats’ share includes Postmates, which it bought in 2020. Grubhub includes Seamless and a few other services.

But DoorDash’s share gains came with a price. Its stock price plunged in trading after the company’s Feb. 25 quarterly report, its first as a public company, showed a $312 million fourth-quarter loss, much wider than its $134 million loss in the same period a year earlier. The expenses came from investing aggressively in the business, with increased spending in sales and marketing, research and development, and other areas.

Among the business threats for the delivery industry is rising pressure from consumers, restaurant clients and local government entities shocked by the fees charged for their services. The fees and news around them could detract from any community-focused efforts and messages the brands put out, so they will need to tread carefully in how to address them.

“Of course we need both merchants and earners to be successful with Uber and Uber Eats,” Muhammad says, noting that the company has implemented programs to help its drivers and delivery “earners,” who the brand ensured were included as beneficiaries for the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund.

DoorDash, in a letter to investors, touted the flexibility its “Dashers” have, pointing out that most worked an average of fewer than 10 hours per week in 2020, with the vast majority having other jobs, schooling or other commitments.

Post-pandemic

The unknown for all delivery providers is what happens when more restaurants reopen.

The Ad Age-Harris Poll found that after the pandemic ends, 49% of U.S. adults plan a mix of ordering food for delivery and eating at restaurants, while just 16% said they plan to only eat restaurant food if they can order it for home delivery.

Dining rooms are starting to reopen in some areas, or to expand the number of diners allowed. On Tuesday, Chicago raised its indoor dining capacity to 50% and Texas allowed its restaurants to fully reopen.

Delivery businesses, meanwhile, are expanding well beyond restaurants. DoorDash delivers groceries and items from convenience stores. And Uber Eats is set to buy alcohol delivery brand Drizly.

DoorDash’s 2021 guidance includes an expectation that the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines could be a headwind to both the number of orders it takes in and the average value of those orders. “While we have seen many positive signals from consumers and markets that have temporarily reopened during the pandemic, we acknowledge that vaccination and full reopenings could drive sharper changes in consumer behavior than current data would predict,” DoorDash Chief Financial Officer Prabir Adarkar said on a Feb. 25 conference call.

Postmates’ Byrd views the world opening up as yet another brand-building opportunity. “I see a lot of pent-up energy from our collective hibernation that is about to be unleashed—dare I say a ‘roaring’ moment is ahead? Postmates will be there too at that horizon to remind you that you should be doing that new fun thing. And yes, we’ll gladly say goodbye to sourdough starter and virtual awards shows.”

Read the full story at Ad Age.