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.
Managing challenges ahead
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What are the biggest challenges ahead?
I think the biggest challenge is to find the strongest, most effective way to communicate Macaroni Grill’s already-differentiated position in the market place. The brand has a loyal following and very strong assets, and deserves the best menu and marketing communications.
Secondarily, there is a lot of work to do. So, finding the balance between wanting to execute new promotions, new products and getting the basics right will be a hard balance to strike. We want to get out there and get going.
Are you using one agency?
We have built great partnerships with our agency of record McCann New York, media agency Universal McCann and our public relations partner SPM Communications. They're working on the Joe’s brand, and we have hired those agencies to work on Macaroni Grill and Brick House Tavern + Tap.
What kinds of efficiencies exist in your marketing to all three brands?
We certainly have efficiencies by internalizing much of our menu and creative work and utilizing agencies across the Ignite brands. However, the efficiencies show up more when innovating. When we ideate internally, all brand resources get involved. We rarely copycat across brands, but we do pull in our whole team for ideas and to allow us to more efficiently get to market with something new.
Once Macaroni Grill is integrated into Ignite, do you let its current marketing continue to run so you can review it as a hands-on CMO, or would you move immediately toward changing some things?
The first objective for us is always growing profitable sales and traffic. All menu and marketing strategies must support that goal. If current programs don’t do that, we will create programs that create momentum against sales and traffic.
My management style is to ask the questions: Will this improve traffic versus last year? Will this improve guest perceptions? What is the purpose of this menu item or the marketing program? There are a lot of shiny pennies in the marketing and menu world. My job is to prioritize those for the team as it relates to our primary objectives. At the end of the day, we have to drive sales in a way that inspires new and current guests.
The consumer will see a few new changes, nearly immediately, including new creative work from McCann that highlights food and beverage propositions that are intended to grow guest counts.
Clay Dover is the chief marketing officer at Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers. He serves as a board member for the NRA Marketing Executives Group and as an Advisory Board member of several restaurant industry organizations, including NRN's conference board.