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Marketing

For modern restaurant marketing chiefs, speed matters more than ever

Keeping pace with social media and adapting to post-pandemic realities have required marketing departments to think and act more quickly.
From left: Heather Lalley, Tana Davila, Kieran Donahue and Alice Crowder./Photo by W. Scott Mitchell

Nothing tests a chief marketing officer quite like a viral video involving IHOP, a young hostess, Adam Sandler and milkshakes.

It was May of last year when a young hostess told the Happy Gilmore star that he would have to wait 30 minutes for a table during a busy period at a Long Island IHOP. Sandler later tweeted that he only left after he was told that the chain’s all-you-can-eat deal didn’t apply to milkshakes.

IHOP soon responded with a “Milkshake Mondays” promotion promising to donate $1 for every milkshake sold to Sandler’s favorite charity, Comedy Gives Back.

“Speed is everything,” IHOP Chief Marketing Officer Kieran Donahue told attendees at the Restaurant Leadership Conference. She recounted the Sandler story during a marketing panel discussion hosted by Restaurant Business Senior Editor Heather Lalley.

“You have to be on top of it, be nimble and take action,” she said.

Restaurant marketers have always had to react quickly, given the level of competitiveness in the industry. But that need for speed has intensified since the pandemic.

To take advantage of opportunities such as the one with Sandler, IHOP has a team of employees that pay close attention to TikTok and other social media channels so they can respond when such opportunities emerge. “We’ve created a way to be nimble in this environment,” Donahue said. “It allows us to move very fast on these things. You have to build it into your marketing organization.”

That agility is important because social media is increasingly vital to a brand’s marketing strategy, and which social media channel is most popular changes almost overnight. One day Instagram is the hottest thing and the next day it’s TikTok. Perhaps tomorrow it’s the metaverse.

Name, Image and Likeness deals, meanwhile, have added a brand-new element for some companies. When such deals became possible, the Southeastern regional burger chain Krystal realized it had an opportunity, said CMO Alice Crowder. “In the Southeast, one of the things that resonates the most is college athletics,” she said. “Professional sports are great. But they don’t have the connectivity of college athletes.”

The company began contacting athletes at various colleges in the Southeastern Athletic Conference, or SEC, and asked if they liked Krystal. “People enter the brand in their college days late at night with perhaps a little alcohol in their system,” Crowder said. “So there’s a natural affection of the brand in the audience.”

The company soon found 50 such athletes across all major sports, both men and women. Krystal goes out a couple of times a year with these athletes to do content tours, which feed the company’s marketing content throughout the season. Crowder also said the company gets strong engagement rates on such content on social media.

Many brands also had to change, and quickly, after the pandemic. For marketers, that means they need maximum value for their marketing dollar. “It’s reset how we thought about spending money,” P.F. Chang’s CMO Tana Davila said. “If I have a dollar to spend I have to make sure it delivers a return.”

Donahue agreed. But she also said that modern marketing sometimes involves taking chances. “You do have to take risks,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned is that if you don’t try, you don’t know. Try something. If it doesn’t work, stop doing it. You’ve got to take some risks there.”

That return demand also requires marketers to choose wisely. Most marketers will choose platforms that provide them with data that helps them make decisions.

Technology has also become increasingly important in the post-pandemic world, and that technology is changing rapidly, too. “I think about 50% of my job is technology ow,” Davila said. “I’ve learned a ton along the way.”

But that technology has helped in many ways, giving marketers more data than they’ve ever had. “Every customer’s action is a data point now,” Donahue said. “As marketers, our job is to take that data point and figure out what actions to do with that datapoint.”

One source of data is loyalty programs. Such efforts are becoming increasingly important in the restaurant space and the biggest brands all have them now or are in the process of getting them. “Data is one of the most important things we can get to that,” Donahue said. “It makes it real for the owner or franchisee. I’m going to know something about our guests and encourage them to come in one additional time.”

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