The Rise of the Machines – marketing implications of AI and fast-food drive-thrus

Published: March 27, 2023

min read

AI is slowly trying to find its level. Like water, it seems to flow to find new avenues; forge new paths and find its place in various receptacles. And it learns and adapts as it goes along, until it finds its spot and it settles, creating an oasis, as it were.

Here is its latest stop – drive-thru points in quick-service restaurants.

Moving from having celebrities endorse and promote their brands, fast food places have started to use celebrity voices, training them to virtually greet and take orders from drive-in customers. Some brands are taking it a step further, using AI-powered order-taking to upsell orders, which they feel is more effective than using actual humans!

The potential for celebrity voices taking our guests’ order is a whole new opportunity to deliver a more fun, memorable, and certainly shareable experience.

Tim Hackbardt, CMO - Del Taco

It looks like just about every chain—including McDonald’s, Popeyes, Wendy’s and Taco Bell—is testing voice AI units.

McDonald’s has been dallying with AI since 2019 when it bought Apprente (an AI ordering system), with AI systems in at least a 100 of its stores. It is now working with IBM to better harness the traction that an AI-powered system can bring to the mix.

Moving forward, IBM’s expertise in building customer care solutions with AI and natural language processing will help scale the AOT technology across markets and tackle integrations including additional languages, dialects, and menu variations.


But the main reason brands add technology to their framework of systems, is to save time. In one of their new restaurants in Fort Worth, Texas, McDonalds has a robotic conveyor that delivers orders to a special order-ahead drive-thru lane. This, the chain feels, will save time by cutting out any employee-customer interaction, thereby saving time. They are also testing Automated Order Taking systems before they can roll them out at scale.

The drive-thru coffee and beverage chain Dutch Bros. has got a digital payment app called Dutch Pass, which saves about four seconds per visit. Checkers and Rally’s have automated their entire line of more than 250 drive-thru outlets.

All this because time is money – and the wages of fast-food industry workers are going up dramatically. Automating drive-thru lines can really turn things around for brands.

Opportunities for marketers to jump in

Tap into influencer marketing

A recognizable celebrity voice greeting customers and taking their orders is a novelty that can draw plenty of customers, especially kids. But the trick is to find the right voice that will work with your target demographic. With AI going the way it is, and the way it learns and evolves, maybe one will be able to customize celebrity voices to suit special customers based on customer data.

Tap into a huge opportunity to upsell

How often have we heard “do you want a coke with it?” Also how often have we not! Every one of those is a missed opportunity… and it is not just coke. Fries… Apple pie… The list can be as long as your product line. A drive-thru offers brands a great opportunity to upsell. And while a human (which is usually a bored teenager trying to make some money) can forget to upsell, AI won’t. It will turn a burger into a meal. Or even a small fries, into an extra-large! This will increase the average meal value substantially, without a doubt.

Tap into an opportunity to free up employees for truly value-based work

When something as interesting comes into the drive-thru, keeping customers engaged, it can free up employees to work on other things, like fulfilling each order, for instance – making each order up correctly and quickly, which will increase customer satisfaction. But that is a work in progress, as it is for any brand. Working to keep customers satisfied is something all brands work towards, as we all know. That is the one thing that will translate into better revenues and ROI.

Of course, there are glitches – some customers are just not happy that a machine was taking their orders. And there are reports that the AI overhears and acts on orders from adjoining lines, or that it cannot understand some orders and there is a problem. And AI does not handle anomalies well – and that could really throw things out of whack. But these could very well be teething issues – and AI, being as smart as it is, and the fact that it learns as it goes along, could only mean that things can get better from here.


Pete Johnson

Pete is a MarTech expert guru with a knack for getting diverse MarTech solutions work for brands. He has a wealth of experience in working with a plethora of MarTech platforms that dive Personalized Omnichannel Experiences. When he's not at work, you can find him playing basketball or listening to jazz.


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