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McDonalds-cactus-plant-flea-market.jpeg Photo courtesy of McDonald's
McDonald's Cactus Plant Flea Market collaboration was the chain's most successful to date.

Why some restaurant companies are starting to act more like marketing companies

In the creator economy, younger consumers want, and expect, more collaborative opportunities with brands, and more are starting to answer the call.

When Patrick Doyle was leading Domino’s Pizza several years ago, he often referred to it as a “tech company that sells pizza.”

There was plenty of reason for this sound bite – at the time, well before the pandemic, the company served as a digital case study of sorts, delivering to hot spots, testing driverless cars, automating phone orders via AI, name it.

It was a bold statement, to be sure. After all, the cornerstones of our industry are food and service. But a few other chains have since embraced the idea of being a tech company first, or alongside, a food company. (Wingstop and Sweetgreen come to mind.) There’s nothing wrong with this positioning. Many (if not most) consumers now want a tech-enabled, convenient, frictionless experience, and at limited-service concepts, those types of experiences have become just as meaningful as the food itself. Tech companies.

Shifting a bit, during a conversation this week with Brian Loughran, Jersey Mike’s director of training, he noted that his company’s founder Peter Cancro often refer to the brand as “a training company.” That’s not to say Jersey Mike’s prioritizes training over its “A Sub Above” food, but it is very much on par. This position is a bit more nuanced in terms of consumer demand, but we all know that better trained employees tend to make better food and provide better experiences, which tends to make consumers happier. A training company.

It may be time to start asking if there are now certain restaurant brands that function more like marketing companies than food companies. And that is no disrespect to their food, of course, but rather in the way they’ve embraced pop culture, leveraged now-critical creator collaborations and poured a ton of resources into top-of-mind share, which is hard to come by these days in the attention economy.

Rolling Stone Magazine – a longtime bellwether of all-things-pop-culture – recently identified the top 20 “marketing rockstars” of 2023, or those leading the creator economy (which, by the way, was worth over $100 billion by the end of 2022, and included over 50 million people identifying as creators.) Three people on that list are leading marketing efforts in the restaurant space, including:

  • Tariq Hassan, McDonald’s chief marketing and customer experience officer. The publication noted he is “reimagining the world’s most iconic fast-food brand by collaborating with billions of McDonald’s fans worldwide. He’s letting creators remix brand artifacts and teaming up with artists and fashion designers to put the brand at the center of culture.”

Indeed, on Hassan’s watch (which started in 2021), McDonald’s has consistently churned out successful, traffic-driving campaigns, like the Cactus Plant Flea Market collaboration and the Grimace Shake promotion, without complicating operations. The Cactus Plant Flea Market Happy Meal didn’t include one new SKU, yet the promotion helped drive a 37% year-over-year uptick in traffic the week it was launched. A marketing company.

  • Sean Tresvant, Taco Bell’s current global chief brand and strategy officer and incoming CEO. Rolling Stone noted Tresvant’s marketing expertise, stating he “keeps Taco Bell relevant and popular, connecting with Gen Z and the chain’s loyal fanbase in authentic and irreverent ways. By partnering with the right creators, Taco Bell’s marketing initiatives have achieved phenomenal results, such as the Doja Cat and Mexican Pizza campaign.”

In addition to Doja Cat and Mexican Pizza, Taco Bell has kept itself in the headlines with buzzy menu collaborations, merch partnerships (such as Crocs and State Bicycle Co.), metaverse weddings, fan-driven product introductions and more. And if you don’t think Taco Bell prioritizes its marketing prowess, consider the company’s succession plan. Tresvant previously served as CMO of the Jordan Brand, while his predecessor and current CEO Mark King previously led adidas Group North America and doubled its market share (Nike and adidas experience is not likely a coincidence; younger and increasingly influential consumers are gravitating toward shoe companies as they consider them to be authentic lifestyle brands). King’s predecessor, Brian Niccol, now leads Chipotle (which you’ll read is also on this list). Niccol previously served as chief marketing and innovation officer of Taco Bell. Niccol’s predecessor, Greg Creed, authored the book, “R.E.D. Marketing: The Three Ingredients of Leading Brands.” R.E.D. stands for “relevant, easy, distinctive,” and it continues to serve as Yum Brands’ roadmap today. A marketing company.

  • Chris Brandt, Chipotle’s chief brand and marketing officer, was recognized by Rolling Stone for tapping, “viral creators for vital components of Chipotle’s marketing campaigns. Focusing on building direct relationships with creators, Brandt finds opportunity in the chaos of order remixing, making them an essential part of the restaurant’s menu hacks.”

To wit, Chipotle was one of the first brands to explore new platforms like BeReal and the metaverse, it continues to evolve its popular rewards program with exclusive programs like “Freepotle” and partnerships with brands like Street Fighter 6, and it leveraged TikTok creators Keith Lee and Alexis Frost to bring their menu hack to life on the menu for a wildly successful campaign. A marketing company.

There are several other companies that could fall into this somewhat arbitrary list (for instance, Crumbl Cookies), and many more who will likely start leaning more into such creator/collaborator-driven marketing tactics. Earlier this week at the Texas Restaurant Association Show, Big Chicken CEO Josh Halpern noted that his company is working on developing collaborative connections with consumers because it’s simply what they want and expect now. And he doesn’t imagine this trend going away anytime soon.

“I think in five years, our consumers are going to be curating our brands more than they are today,” he said. “Younger generations, they’re asking different questions, they want to be a part of the decision-making process. They’re making a conscious decision to attach their personal brand to our brands. It’s a collaboration now.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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