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CMO Perspectives: Susan Lintonsmith of Quiznos

This interview is part of CMO Perspectives, presented by NRN in partnership with the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group. The monthly feature explores how leading executives are navigating the ever-changing restaurant marketing landscape. In this installment, Clay Dover, CMO of Pei Wei Asian Diner, discusses brand transformation with Quiznos global chief marketing officer Susan Lintonsmith.

Susan Lintonsmith
Susan Lintonsmith, global chief marketing officer, Quiznos. Photo: Quiznos

I had the opportunity to meet with Susan Lintonsmith — global chief marketing officer for Quiznos — and was impressed with her background in developing a new fast-casual concept from an existing brand not once, but twice. She shared her thoughts on how brands can make the leap, what to keep and what to leave behind, and taking risks. 

1. You were a driving force behind Red Robin Burger Works and now Quiznos Grill. What are the three things any new fast-casual brand must consider? 

With both Burger Works and Quiznos Grill, we were starting with existing brands that have been around for decades and trying to move them into the bright and shiny fast-casual space. In both circumstances, we recognized that we had a great opportunity to leverage core brand equities to extend the brands into the fast-casual segment. 

Red Robin Burger Works took the equity of a larger, casual-dining, family-friendly restaurant in the suburbs and moved it to a smaller urban footprint with counter service. We knew that people loved the burgers, but sometimes didn’t want to invest the time or money for table service and tipping. The opportunity was to take some of the best attributes of the menu, like the fire-grilled burgers and the great steak fries, simplify ops to speed up the ticket times, and put it in a cool and hip environment. 

With Quiznos, we were challenged with how to take the brand, known for its toasted subs, from quick service and move it successfully into fast casual. We did a lot of work to understand the “white space” — the unmet needs of the consumers where the brand could be meaningfully differentiated. We started by leveraging the best key attributes of the brand — the hot, delicious, quality subs. Quiznos is known for quality ingredients, great recipes and oven toasting to bring out the flavor. We took this base equity and pushed further on innovation. We designed a higher-end, premium hot sandwich menu with even more distinctive ingredients and innovative recipes. Then, we designed a very contemporary environment that was consistent with the positioning and new menu and appealed to our Millennial target. 

In both situations, we did three things: 

• Leveraged key attributes from the base brand that guests loved;
• Focused on the food and the story behind the food; and
• Ensured that the entire concept was unique and meaningfully differentiated for the target.

For both concepts, we took what guests loved about the food and pushed it further. We made sure there was a story behind the sourcing or preparation of the food that was meaningful to the target consumer. And, we made sure the all the elements fit together — the food, team members, service, and environment — to offer target customers a concept that is familiar, but meaningfully differentiated in the fast casual environment.

Quiznos Grill
Inside Quiznos Grill, the fast-casual variant of Quiznos. Photo: Quiznos

2. What is the difference in marketing for a turnaround brand versus a new fast-casual brand? 

The key difference in marketing a turnaround brand is that you need to clearly let customers know what has changed — what is new or different — to drive retrial. With a turnaround brand, the strategic work is a little different. It’s about understanding what guests like or do not like about the current brand. It’s about understanding what changes you can make to better own key attributes. You need to make decisions as to what should be stopped, started or improved. Once you have made noticeable improvements, the challenge is to change guest perceptions. The key is to make significant and noticeable improvements. It’s not enough to make slight changes in a turnaround. Guests must see and experience big changes. 

In a turnaround, you need to convince the guest that you enhanced what they loved and fixed what they didn’t — the things that caused them to visit less often or stop coming. The marketing needs to be about changing perceptions and getting guests back in the door to rediscover your brand. 

Marketing a new brand is about setting brand perception, instead of changing past perceptions. With a new concept, you need to give the consumer a reason to try you. The marketing is about telling your brand story, revealing the soul of the brand and talking about your food. You get one opportunity to set a good first impression. With a new brand, you have the chance to get it right from the start. 

3. In one word for each, what are the 3 most important components for your personal and professional success?

Passion. Integrity. Leadership.

4. Most of your work has been for large concepts and/or in the crowded segments. How do you combat a monster competitor and/or the crowded segments?

I’m fortunate to have worked on some great brands, from large brands like Coca-Cola to smaller purpose-driven like Horizon Organic dairy. I’ve also worked for four different restaurant brands that were at different stages of development and growth. The restaurant brands were all in crowded, competitive segments. In three of the companies, my brand was competing against larger brands with much bigger budgets. When you’re in this situation, you simply can’t out-shout your competitors. It forces you to think differently and be more creative. 

At Quiznos, we were trying to resonate with our Millennial male customer and drive location awareness. We got creative and developed, a content-driven digital platform that engages viewers with relevant original and curated content. We focused on content our guests love — comedy, music and sports. We leveraged this platform to quickly become part of the pop-culture conversation through authentic brand stories. Importantly, the content was successful in getting guests to spend millions of minutes interacting with and sharing our brand. They clicked through to our website store locator and found their closest location. We were able to achieve our objectives creatively and efficiently. 

Crowded segments can be a fun challenge, especially when you are the smaller player. You can stand out by innovating and taking risks. 

5. Finally, you are one of the top female CMOs in the restaurant industry — congratulations. What is your advice to women in marketing who want to follow in your footsteps? 

Thank you. There are some amazing women in this industry. My advice for anyone who wants to be happy and successful is to do what you love, love what you do, work hard and keep a great attitude. 

It’s important to have passion for what you do. I love the restaurant industry. One of my most favorite jobs was working as a server at Piccolo’s, a Mexican-Italian family-owned restaurant. I worked there throughout high school and during holidays and summer breaks throughout college. I loved the people I worked with, the customers and the food! Those times are still some of my best memories. 

Another piece of advice is to work hard and have a positive attitude. I love when a person steps up and takes accountability for a project. It’s great when someone goes above and beyond. When executives see that you do great work AND have a great attitude, they will be more likely to promote you and want you to work on key projects. 

My personal mantra is “Attitude is Everything.” I have a rock on my desk with this quote. I love optimists and personally try to keep a positive attitude. We all have to deal with a lot in our work and personal life. And doesn’t it seem that when it rains it pours? How we deal with what happens makes all the difference. I frequently say, “You can’t control the winds, but you can adjust the sails.” When you have a positive attitude, your counterparts will want to work with you. We all enjoy being around people with upbeat, positive attitudes. 

The necessity of risk

(Continued from page 1)

Pei Wei CMO Clay Dover reflects on his conversation with Quiznos global chief marketing officer Susan Lintonsmith.

In talking with Susan, I realized that taking risks is essential for a brand to evolve to the next level. In the case of a current brand trying to add a new concept to the fast-casual space, here are the few key things to consider: 

How does it help to use the current brand awareness of my brand? 

In the case of Quiznos and Red Robin, there is an awareness that is in the marketplace that has been created over years and is worth millions of dollars. Using the brand name association helps the new brand separate itself in the market place immediately. 

What current perceptions are connected to the brand? 

Many good things come with negatives. Even though you can gain from using the parent brand’s name, it is important to realize that guests have some expectations that are connected to the current brand. In case of Quiznos, it is a quick-service sandwich expectation and in case of Red Robin it is a casual sit-down burger place. Both the brands must think of what brand heritage they want to keep and what they don’t. 

a. Example of what they want to keep: Both Quiznos and Red Robin may want to keep their ownership of the category, the sandwich and the burger respectively as they move into fast casual. 

b. Example of what they want to separate from: Red Robin has a service and price expectation that Burger Works may want to separate itself from. Quiznos Grill may want to separate from the quick-service mindset of Quiznos and show that that the new brand has a service level on par with Chipotle and quite different from the current brand. 

Looking at the new brand as a new business? 

Quick-service and fast-casual concepts have totally different business models. The pricing structure and promotions all are completely different. Hence, forming a separate team to run the new business in the new space is essential. Otherwise, the parent brand gets tempted to find synergies from its activities in the current space and bring them to the new space. That can be a brand-killer. 

How are the new business and the current business positioning separate? 

As the new brand is being developed, the company must have a clear picture of where both brands will be in 10 to 15 years. That final picture will help plan the development of each brand. Having a sure idea of where Red Robin and Burger Works will be in 10 to 15 years, will allow both brands to plan their growth in the avenues planned, instead of bringing them too close to one another.

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