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The restaurant CMO role gets a makeover

In the ever-evolving world of restaurant marketing, execs struggle to leverage data—and keep their jobs.
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It’s hard to imagine a C-suite-level job in the industry that has evolved more in recent years than that of the chief marketing officer.

Marketing has always been important, to be sure. But add in social media, data gathering and personalized, targeted advertising, and the CMO becomes absolutely mission-critical—and an easy scapegoat when the train veers off the tracks.

Just last month, for example, struggling Papa John’s fired its chief marketing officer and Jimmy John's hired former Gatorade exec John Shea as its new CMO. The sandwich chain is already launching an aggressive new ad campaign.

And Chipotle Mexican Grill, which is in the midst of a massive turnaround campaign, brought on the former CMO of Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, Brian Niccol, as its CEO. Niccol, in turn, recently hired a new marketing officer to help the brand regain its mojo.

With all that pressure, operators say, it’s not unusual to see short tenures in the top marketing spot.

“I’ve been with Pei Wei about a year. As CMO, that’s not too bad,” Brandon Solano says, with a bit of a gallows-humor laugh. “If you know you’re 12 months away from getting fired, you’re more bold. … Knowing that is totally liberating.”

Solano has previously served as the marketing head at Wendy’s and Papa Murphy’s.

“The level of competition for traffic has never been higher,” says Solano, citing grocery stores and convenience stores for taking share away from restaurants.

Todd Ebert joined Front Burner Restaurants in November, becoming the first CMO for the parent company of Velvet Taco, Twin Peaks, Whiskey Cake Kitchen & Bar and other concepts. He is currently at work building his marketing team, as well as exploring ways to use customer data for highly targeted marketing. Front Burner is bullish in adding food halls to its portfolio and plans to bring on dedicated marketing employees for those ventures in the coming months and years, Ebert says.

“In the old world, it would be ‘spray and pray,’” he says of the onetime-traditional marketing strategy of blasting a singular campaign to an entire audience. “I don’t believe in that any more. It’s not good ROI.”

In the increasingly digital world, marketing needs to be fully integrated into a brand’s operations and finance departments, says Josh Kern, the CMO for Cerca Trova, one of the largest Outback Steakhouse franchisees. “Marketers used to, just, in a vacuum, create something, and ops was left to get it done,” Kern says. “Now, it’s so much more intertwined.”

One of the potential pitfalls for marketers today, though, is an overabundance of data, he says. Smart CMOs need to know how to navigate all of that information and then distill it into useful, actionable knowledge for the company. At this point, many marketers are learning this new skill in real time, as it is a big shift from traditional marketing that is still slowly rolling out in the restaurant world—yet a change necessary to target consumers’ expectation of personalized messaging.

Among the new skill sets marketers say they need today:

  • Building effective digital campaigns.
  • Knowing how to use consumer data. “It’s one thing to have data,” Ebert says. “It’s another thing to have insights. It’s another thing to take action.”
  • The ability to be highly flexible and nimble to jump on the latest technologies, as well as know how and when to pitch different innovations to the executive team.
  • A broad focus to respond to consumer feedback across a variety of channels.
  • The knowledge and experience to know when to bring campaigns in-house and when to outsource them to specialized agencies.

Despite increased demands on their time and ever-changing technology, marketers say the importance of compelling content still remains.

“We’re the ‘chief simplicity officers,’” Kern says. “There are so many things that are out there, it can distract you.”

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