Since joining Dairy Queen as executive vice president of marketing in February 2012, Barry Westrum has been mindful of the quick-service chain’s storied heritage while staying focused on the brand’s present and future.

Next year, the Minneapolis-based chain will celebrate its 75th anniversary as a brand, as well as the 30th anniversary of its iconic Blizzard treat. Yet Dairy Queen’s leaders constantly look to update and refresh both the brand and the Blizzard to stay relevant and sustain domestic and international growth. The chain has more than 6,400 locations worldwide, including more than 1,200 in 23 countries outside the United States and Canada.

“Our biggest challenge in today’s world is that, historically, we have been seen for just wonderful treats and special occasions,” Westrum wrote in an email interview with Clay Dover, board member of the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group. “As we develop the brand and menu offerings, we need to convince consumers we are relevant for everyday occasions.”


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His initiatives to that end have included the rollout of the $5 Buck Lunch and Orange Julius Real Fruit Smoothies, as well as a new partnership with agency of record Barkley, which developed the “Fan food, not fast food” branding campaign.

Westrum corresponded with Dover on several marketing trends in quick service, including the need for greater innovation around service and technology.

Tell me about the upside-down Blizzard experience for your guests. It’s the first thing I think of when somebody mentions Dairy Queen.

The Blizzard is a wonderful product that is as relevant today as it was when it was launched back in 1985. And the Blizzard served upside down is an iconic fan favorite that is unmatched anywhere else in the category. When our crew member serves an upside-down Blizzard treat to a fan, it says two things: The product was made with the superior quality of the unduplicated Dairy Queen soft serve, and the Blizzard was hand-crafted just for them. This is a wonderful moment for our brand, and we continue to work with our operators to ensure the DQ Blizzard is served upside down, each and every time.

With your increased emphasis on marketing and brand development, what has been your focus since joining Dairy Queen?

We’ve aligned on a brand strategy with our Franchisee Advisory Council that keeps us focused on the very few initiatives that will grow our brand in the long term. Aside from advertising, value and product quality, we are working to significantly improve our restaurant operations, including speed of service and hospitality. Consumers have less than 17 minutes for lunch today — every second now counts. We are also striving to remodel our existing units at a faster pace, while aggressively adding new units in key markets.

What drives that new-unit growth, both domestically and internationally?

What’s exciting about a brand our size and with our heritage is that we are still very much in growth mode, both in the United States and internationally. In the United States and Canada, we added 90 new units last year, with new units constantly setting sales records. Internationally, we now have 1,268 units in 23 countries.

What steps have you had to take to keep a nearly 75-year-old brand relevant?

The key to relevancy is the way we speak to our fans. First, our messaging has to feature new products and initiatives that speak to consumer demands today. A good example here is our February Blizzard of the Month, Red Velvet Cake, a very on-trend flavor that tested very well with our fans. Secondly, our media selection must put our message where Millennials are consuming information today, everything from a 30-second national-TV spot on “The Bachelor,” all the way to retweeting a post from one of our fans sharing their love of our products.

Our creative must represent the way our consumers us the brand today, and not in the nostalgic past. I think Barkley has done a good job representing our brand creatively as one that is contemporary and relevant today.

Mastering marketing

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How has the competition evolved the past few years, and how does Dairy Queen address that and stay differentiated?

There is no question that the consumer today has many more options for an afternoon snack or treat, a category we dominate. The key for us is to make sure we continue to evolve our menu with changing consumer tastes. For example, last year we launched world-famous Orange Julius Premium Fruit Smoothies in all of our 5,100 units across the United States and Canada. Our fans told us that Orange Julius stood for much more high-quality smoothies than what they have come to expect from the mass-produced, typical fast-food smoothie, and we have captured a large share of that marketplace. We have a host of other new products in test right now that are unique to the QSR industry and further support our “fan food” positioning.

Where are you allocating more marketing resources in 2014? Where do you see innovation and change happening most for restaurants?

We continue to focus on both mass- and micro-marketing excellence together. National TV advertising continues to drive immediate results for us on a monthly basis, as we continue to launch new or limited-time products or reinforce our popular $5 Buck Lunch. Yet we continue to engage our fans one-on-one with a renewed social platform initiated by Barkley not only on Facebook and Twitter, but also on newer platforms like Tumblr, Instagram and Vine. Last year, we tripled our engagement scores with consumers, and we know that has something to do with the sales growth we saw in 2013.

What do you think the future of restaurant marketing will be?

I believe service will make the difference in the coming years. Consumers have been tolerant of an overall mediocre experience in our category. The rapid growth of fast casual clearly indicates that consumers overall are willing to pay for better quality and service. The QSR chains that change the service paradigm first will be the winners in the decades to come.

What restaurant chain other than Dairy Queen is doing a great job marketing, and why?

Chick-fil-A continues to amaze me with the consistency and quality of the hospitality in their service model. Their ability to maintain the quality here as they grow rapidly is a testament to their culture, and we can all learn from them.

What marketing trends from outside the marketing industry should be incorporated into our business more?

I think we have only begun to scratch the surface in technology’s ability to redefine the service experience in the drive-thru. If you think about it, the drive-thru experience in our category has been relatively unchanged since the first drive-thrus were installed in McDonald’s 40 years ago. The consumer clearly demands more, thus the rise of fast casual.

However, the consumer continues to be financially and time-challenged, therefore the drive-thru remains incredibly relevant. We must as an industry embrace change and use technology to redefine the drive-thru experience. The first ones to do this in our space will have a leg up on the competition in the years to come.