Before ascending to her role as chief marketing officer for Ignite Restaurant Group, Robin Ahearn gained a wealth of experience testing and validating new products and learning how to impact sales through strong campaigns, previously as Ignite’s senior vice president of marketing and menu and in prior media supervisor roles with Applebee’s and the Tracy Locke agency.

That experience in media and menu planning, from both the operator and agency sides, has prepared her for her biggest challenge yet, she said. Houston-based Ignite, the parent of 129-unit Joe’s Crab Shack and 15-unit Brick House Tavern + Tap, recently closed on its acquisition of Romano’s Macaroni Grill, whose more than 200 domestic locations will more than double Ignite’s total restaurant count.

But while Ahearn’s responsibilities have grown with the new chain in Ignite’s portfolio, she and her team will integrate Macaroni Grill into the marketing department by keeping the same focus it had with just Joe’s and Brick House, down to the smallest details.

Ahearn spoke with Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers' chief marketing officer Clay Dover, a board member for the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group, about integrating and activating the newly acquired and well-established Macaroni Grill chain.

How are you preparing for the acquisition?

The first phase of preparation was really to get educated on the brand. We looked at everything from menu mix and trends, media schedules, new-product introductions, past research, existing partnerships and much more.
This in-depth understanding of past success and failures offered a snapshot of where the brand was in its life cycle, which drove our business decisions but also decisions about the customer experience. While we have a clear vision for the brand’s future, we do not want to lose what the makes Macaroni Grill so unique.

The acquisition was completed in early April, and our research has served us well. During the prep time I also created a new management structure for each brand, allowing us to move faster to market and have more collaboration within our marketing departments and with operations. Certainly, this means a lot of new faces here at Ignite.

How do you merge the teams together?

We never merged the teams but started with an organizational structure that would best serve each brand and filled positions from Ignite and Macaroni Grill with individuals that would create the most successful menu and marketing strategies.

We have a marketing strategy and implementation team for each brand. We also have an in-house design team to serve as the internal resource for all printed and digital production plus all creative content, including social. I believe we also have a unique structure in that culinary is a part of the marketing organization. We have dedicated chefs for each brand, as well as a beverage team. This structure forces us to always focus on driving sales and traffic through food and beverage quality and innovation.