Why TGI Fridays Is Thinking About Marketing Like a Startup

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Forming a digital marketing strategy is no cookie-cutter affair for many restaurants. Attracting foot traffic at a TGI Fridays is not the same as pitching customers a deal on a sweater at store. Rather than appeal just on price, restaurants must literally play to consumers’ appetites. Timing can be as much of a factor as the type of message that is sent. Casual dining chain TGI Fridays has been revamping the way it reaches out to get the brand in consumers’ minds when they are hungry or want to unwind after a workday, says Sherif Mityas, vice president of strategy and brand initiatives.

Of course marketers always try to understand trending topics among customers, and for a national restaurant chain it also means finding ways to listen and react quickly at the local level. Mityas, who will speak at next month’s Street Fight Summit, says his company is thinking like much younger, nimble brands in order as part of a strategy to connect more personally with customers.

TGI Fridays is a widely known brand, but reaching local consumers is obviously essential for the business. How do you develop a marketing strategy for a national presence that connects at a very local level?
That is the basis of a change that we initiated. When people think about Fridays, sometimes they think of they place they went to when they were little kids. We are a 50-plus-year-old brand, but one that started with people having fun. That initiated with happy hour. We initiated apps (appetizers) with mozzarella sticks, potato skins, and great drinks with bartenders with flair. It’s about going back to that bar and grill heritage and connecting with our guests, even though we are a veteran brand.

We want people to think of us as a 50-year-old startup. When you’re a startup again, you have to reconnect with your guests. To us, it goes back to that bartender having a conversation with guests. It’s very local. It’s very personal. It’s very one-on-one.

We used that as the foundation for what we wanted to do digitally. We want to stop talking one-to-millions — all these customers we’ve built up over time — and go back to talking one-to-one. Everything we’ve been trying to do around our personalization efforts, our digitalization efforts, things we’re doing with bots and AI, is really about reconnecting with individual guests versus talking to the masses. Everything that we’ve been doing goes back to fulfilling that mission. That foundation is a bartender talking to a customer across the bar, one-to-one.

What types of technology have you looked at implementing? Retailers might deploy beacons at their stores — is that something you consider using in the restaurant industry?
We started with two things. One is: what do our guests look for when they want to engage with us? They want to understand basic information such as where’s the restaurant, what are the hours, what are the happy hour specials, what does the menu look like, are there gluten-free items. It’s that informational layer that we had to support — by putting out our own app, upgrading our website, putting bot technology on Facebook and Twitter and soon some of the voice platforms to be able to have that conversation with our guests, and feed them the information we know they are looking for.

We wanted to take it to the next level. Guests are looking to reserve tables so we’re one of the first chains to have a national partnership with OpenTable. OpenTable powers all of our reservations across all those platforms, providing a convenience to our guests to have a conversation. You can talk to Amazon Alexa and make a reservation.

We wanted them to engage with us around our food, so we offered the ability to order online — both for pick-up and soon to be launched for delivery. We’re piloting a number of stores for delivery; we’ll continue to rollout to the rest of our chain through the balance of this year. We’re providing another option for guests to possibly tweet an order to us, talk to us on Facebook, talk to Amazon Alexa and place an order for their favorite ribs.

Adding these capabilities across our platforms was step one. Step two is using that interaction and engagement with our guests to learn. This is where the bot and AI technology come in. Now I am capturing the data from these conversations and I’m using that data for insight in terms of what are my guests talking about, what drinks are they wondering about, what items are they asking about and ordering, and in what parts of the country are they doing that.

So now I’m able to take that data and feed it to my culinary team, my marketing team, and my store team around a service model and help stores become more responsive to guests. The learning we’re gathering by capturing the data and insights from conversations drives innovation going forward.

So the bots are gathering the data from conversations between the company and customers?
They’re helping us with the engagement with guests, answering questions, and allowing people to order. But then they’re also learning for us. They’re capturing this data and helping us analyze what people are talking about, when they are talking, and who these people are. That way I know a particular age group with a certain social presence in the Northeast is talking about Long Island Iced Teas this week for some reason. So what can I do to capture that kind of sentiment and do something with it in my restaurants in the Northeast? We become much more targeted in what we do and what we offer to meet the needs of the guests. That’s really the power of some this emerging AI technology.

Are there any special approaches the company has to take with its marketing strategy in regards to franchisees versus company-owned locations?
We operate as a brand. It’s a singular connection point with each guest at a Fridays. They don’t know whether it’s a franchise location or corporate store. The same thing online; it’s opaque to the guest.  We treat everyone the same from a brand perspective in terms of the conversation. How we use the data is very similar. We feed that into our corporate systems and insight groups to then push that out to our franchise partners.

Joao-Pierre Ruth is a Street Fight contributor.

Join TGI Fridays’ Sherif Mityas and hundreds of other top local companies and brands at The Best Street Fight Summit Ever — a three-day extravaganza in Brooklyn on June 12-14. Click here to register now!