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IHOP CMO Kieran Donahue said such an omnichannel approach is critical for today’s marketing landscape.

Consumers serve as the north star of IHOP’s influencer strategy

The restaurant company leverages influencers for its omnichannel marketing approach, and CMO Kieran Donahue recently added an NIL campaign featuring student-athletes.

IHOP recently reported its 11th consecutive quarter of positive same-store sales and outperformed its category on traffic. Much of this success has been driven by the company’s robust marketing strategy that includes campaigns like a Pancake of the Month flavor, a Wonka-themed menu, and a loyalty program — the International Bank of Pancakes — launched in March 2022 and now counting 8 million members.

Of course, there are also social and digital campaigns and influencer partnerships and so forth. CMO Kieran Donahue said such an omnichannel approach is critical for today’s marketing landscape.  

“Marketing is more complex than ever and there are more channels and more ways to reach people. We’re constantly evaluating those channels and asking if that is where the guest is,” she said during a recent interview. “One thing that has not changed is that at the center of everything a powerful brand does is focus on its guests and listening to its guests.”

Even as the creator economy grows and influencers become, well, more influential, the approach itself has remained the same, she contends, and it starts with that listening piece. That said, she knows more guests are turning to influencers to find information and make decisions. To keep pace, IHOP taps creators who best represent its customer base and who have a “genuine love for the brand.”

IHOP has also been working in the NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) space, and released a “Fan Cakes” video series in the fall featuring student-athletes from universities across the country talking about their favorite pancake stacks. The campaign was a success, Donahue said.

“[Influencers] can tell the story sometimes better than we can,” she said. “So, people still tell us what they do and don’t like about our brand, but there’s new ways to leverage that information to not only reach more guests and influence them, but at the same time, create a reason for people that maybe wouldn’t have thought of IHOP to go ahead and try us.”

To facilitate its influencer strategy, IHOP relies on its agency partners who “have the pulse.” The company then vets potential partners, making sure they’re a right fit — what is being said about them, how do guests interact with them, how do they interact with others, are they authentic, etc.

“We try to pick the ones that are really representative of who an IHOP guest is because you can’t force it. It’s got to be authentic, and that’s part of why we listen so closely,” Donahue said.

Donahue makes it a point to note that influencers are simply another piece in a very large pie — a complement to a broader marketing strategy. That omnichannel approach, if you will. The point is to go where the consumers are.

“If the guest is on social media, then that’s where we need to be. You have to adapt,” Donahue said.

Still, as IHOP adapts to new or growing channels, or new or growing strategies, the focal point remains the same.

“Does the channel or the message change as the years have gone on? Yeah, sure. We’re proud to be 65 years old, and we’re proud that we’ve also been able to evolve with our guests and we’ve grown and they’ve grown,” Donahue said. “What’s unique about where we are today is where you get that information. It is more than research and surveys now; it’s TikTok and Instagram, and we can get great ideas that way. Our job, our responsibility is to keep up with where the guest is.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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