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Denny Marie Post explains how she's planning to market virtual brands to Nation's Restaurant News.

Denny Marie Post on how to market a virtual brand and her new job at Nextbite

The marketing expert talks women in business, the future of virtual brands and the reason for her latest career move in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News

Denny Marie Post joined Nextbite last week as co-president, but she’s not new to the industry. Post is the former CEO of Red Robin and an influential marketer with years at KFC and Burger King under her belt. The Donatos and Red Robin partnership came together during her tenure as CEO, and she is someone who likes “big ideas.” Nation’s Restaurant News recently spoke with Post about her new job, the switch into the virtual-dining world and how to market something that doesn’t physically exist.

Nation’s Restaurant News: What’s it like joining Nextbite in this position as co-president after being an advisor?

Denny Marie Post: I've been advising this company and I've been part of their board now since last fall and so it's great in the sense that I've had a chance to really get to know the members of the leadership team, and the mission of the company. I've had a chance to learn what's worked, what hasn't worked, what opportunities remain. So, it's like an extended interview process in a way. But in this sense, I've really been interviewing them.

NRN: What are you looking forward to in terms of to handling virtual brands when it comes to marketing?

DMP: I'm really digging in on that topic right now. And in fact, we're putting together a salon, if you will, of advisors, from people who've done [direct-to-consumer] brands outside the industry, people who've created virtual brands within our industry, partners like direct service providers, third-party delivery providers… In the in the traditional restaurant world, you invest, you launch, and then you're left with brick-and-mortar restaurant signage at Main and Main, and you pass it every day.

And it's long been proven that presence in that signage is one of the most — if not the most — effective tool for establishing yourself as a brand. The good news about the virtual-brand space is, you have a chance to tell a more complete story through a digital story. Unlike a sign and a brand name that says Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews, you’re now in a complete digital suite of services between your branding, your menu, your pictures. You actually have a chance to present a more complete story.

I think our biggest question is, ‘What are all the things in the toolbox?’ like earned media, is this consumer-facing, great targeting, the role of influencers, celebrities, the role of borrow brands or borrowed equities, all those things we're putting in in the stewpot and mixing it around. I think we have the opportunity with the learning we've gained over the last few years and with the addition of some new talents and thoughts to really have the best approach to launching and sustaining virtual brands. It's going to be totally new, because again, you don't end up with the traditional Main and Main so how do you create and sustain awareness?

You can always intercept the consumer or the guest — in this case virtual guests — where they are, when they are, so we actually have tools available to us that we would have dreamed of in a traditional business.

NRN: What have you learned in the last few months as an advisor to Nextbite?

DMP: I think the biggest thing I've learned — or reaffirmed — is the importance of engaging operators. You know, as marketers, you can dream up all you want to dream up, you can send out all the messages and coupons or incentives you want to do, but if you don't have the operator's heart in it, then you aren't going to deliver on the promise… Nextbite started as a — and continues to be — an advocate for small business, but you can absolutely see those who have embraced it, who are running up to six, seven brands, and doing so in a way that is more than paying, it's providing that margin that allows them to be truly successful in the restaurant business.

That's the promise when you move from small business to enterprise as Nextbite has done with IHOP. You can't leave that behind just because corporate says we're working with these folks now. You’ve still got to be able to engage the hearts and minds of the operators who fulfill on the order that comes across for Thrilled Cheese instead of IHOP. And you need to have them understand what's important about fulfilling with quality and in a timely manner. So, it's just reaffirmed for me the importance of marketing and operations, working closely together to understand it's all in service to the guest. And in this case, it's not a guest you're going to see but think of it as a virtual line outside your restaurant. You want to make sure you are serving them just as completely as you would if they were sitting at your counter.

NRN: The virtual-brand space, like the restaurant space as a whole, is dominated by a lot of men. How do you, as the former interim CEO of the Women’s Foodservice Forum, plan to change that?

DMP: Last time I checked women still make most of the purchase decisions. So you know, I am first and foremost as a marketer, I will speak for the for the guest — in this case, the virtual guest — and I do think that there is a belief that has been created in the virtual-dining industry that the primary customer is 23-year-old male. And there is no doubt that that individual does in fact use virtual brands. There is a core consumer that is that young male, but the reality is that women are still the primary decision makers and the ones who need to feed the members of their household, be that the folks who are just gathered under that door or literally the family. So I want to start there. I want to understand whether we're meeting the needs of women, and where the gaps are in that business.

It used to be that you had to go multiple places to solve that or that was why bar and grills existed. Let's admit it. Bars and grills existed to have these wide variety of menus. That honestly didn't really stand or have anything that they did really well. But it was the easy decision because it took care of everybody.

So, I believe that we can figure out how to meet the needs of women who make a lot of these purchase decisions so that they don’t have to be traffic cops coordinating for deliveries from four different locations, but there's a way to find things everybody can agree on. And in fact, when I came into Nextbite, a lot of it was around that work. I think we can push that forward with some brands. At the same time having the cool millennial talked-about brands, which are hot as well, but I don't think that's the only way to go.

In terms of women, I am an advocate for women leaders and absolutely I've played a role in helping women join Nextbite. One is Michelle Wickham [GM of operations for Nextbite] I've had the pleasure of working with over the years in multiple roles. She's the Swiss Army knife of leaders. You go to her and she'll take care of it. She's got operations, and then Jaimi St. John [MA food systems — vice president for Nextbite], who just joined us and came into lead culinary — you don't get more talented than Jaimi.

We need more. We need more women leaders in this business and I think virtual dining is a place where people can really make their mark. Look at people like Meredith Sandland. I mean, she's been doing such a great job of letting people know about the opportunities in off-premise. I think this opens some doors and I will certainly be there to promote it.

But most importantly, I'm interested in this for the future of restaurants because I do believe restaurants need to alter their business models and find ways to get more out of the investments they're making in kitchens and labor and opening hours and everything, they just need to find a way to get better utilization. So, it's a classic financial play.

NRN: Is that why you joined Nextbite? Because of the benefits a virtual brand can offer a traditional business?

DMP: Yeah, I mean, I've seen it time and again. We would build a new unit, a new restaurant, and you built a unit to peak at what we used to call peak-to-peak hours. The reality is those peak hours are less than in terms of time, not dollar volume. They're hugely important to the dollar volume of restaurant. But if you're building a restaurant to peak out on Friday and Saturday night, you got a whole lot of other open hours where you are not, in fact, getting the benefit of that asset.

When I was at Red Robin, part of the reason to bring in the Donatos piece was to get better utilization out of our space and kitchens. And when I first heard about this model, I loved the asset utilization play and I also loved the opportunity to create — not entirely passive revenue, but a revenue stream that is entirely back-of-house in its management and its fulfillment and leaves it to the restaurateurs to run their brand with precision and great service and rebuild that dine-in business.

This is not replacing dining. This is augmenting their ability to be profitable and be successful. Costs are going up, rent’s not getting cheaper, labor is not getting cheaper, food is not getting cheaper, so you need greater efficiency and you're swimming uphill. You've only got so many seats, and there's only so much demand. So, if you're not full on a Monday night, doing this makes a lot of sense.

Now the one thing I would say is — this is where marketers and operators need to work together. Just like you wouldn't close your door just because you're too busy inside, you have to learn how to manage the peaks of both businesses ultimately. So you know, this can't be a Monday through Thursday, cut off the tablet I'll see you back again on Monday kind of business because you're essentially closing the door to the to the consumer. But I've always been an innovator, I love great marketing challenges. I love the culinary world. I like working within a set of constraints because that's sometimes where the smartest work gets done and I’m really excited about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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