Smashburger founder Tom Ryan largely credits the Denver-based fast-casual chain’s torrid growth — from one restaurant in 2007 to 215 locations in four countries today — to its marketing philosophy, which relies heavily on the wildfire-like spread of social media content and word-of-mouth.

While Smashburger can buy radio and TV time in many of its larger markets, it still will employ a branding strategy heavy on fostering relationships with local tastemakers, bloggers and influential customers through public relations, events and social media, Ryan said.

The key to that strategy is using events and social media to tell the brand’s story and spell out its differentiating factors in explicit detail to people like bloggers and social-media mavens, who have the time and platform to convey far more than a 30-second commercial could, he said.

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In a larger PR sense, stunts and events have resulted in favorable media coverage that can reach nationwide, he added. For example, a May 28 promotion for National Burger Day — in which Smashburger gave away a free Classic Smash to anybody with “burger” or “berger” in his or her last name — got picked up by all three national network morning shows. An Election Day poll that Smashburger conducted, asking whether respondents would rather have a burger with President Barack Obama or his opponent Gov. Mitt Romney, became the featured infographic on the front page of USA Today.

Ryan also is managing partner and chief concept officer at Denver-based Consumer Capital Partners, parent to Smashburger, Live Basil Pizza and Tom’s Urban 24. Consumer Capital is now looking to extend Smashburger’s marketing philosophy not only to its sister brands, but also to other noncompeting fast-casual restaurants and consumer brands with the formation of a new media agency, Press Effect. According to Press Effect’s managing partner, Stacie Lange, the agency will coordinate with a consortium of boutique public relations firms in 20 markets throughout the United States to develop local events, social media content, and outreach to local bloggers and personalities to keep Smashburger and other brands top of mind in those markets.

Ryan spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about how nontraditional marketing built his fast-casual brands and the segment, and how he plans to continue that branding strategy at Smashburger.

Smashburger recently began testing TV and radio ads. How has the chain built its brand on local-store and nontraditional marketing?

There is a lot of opportunity to use traditional channels to dive primary awareness, but you have to connect it with content in the store.

From the beginning, we wanted Smashburger to be a defining brand for the next generation, and the marketing mix for how you engage them is different than for how you engaged the last generation. Early on, we realized that in order to communicate our differentiation, we needed to talk to the next-generation customer, and they were looking at and listening to very different sources. I believe that PR is the new marketing. There’s an authenticity and integrity that’s not just advertising, but that comes from having a lot of touch points and an event base with your consumers. The PR field in general is a bigger piece of the puzzle as we go from the last generation to the new generation.

Social media is kind of the new place between traditional marketing and PR. We knew that the people out there giving voice to our next generation of customers were the people we wanted to make sure got our story right. That set up the infrastructure of our PR approach. In order to get the message out, we needed to get it to the blogosphere, which had a decentralized voice in the amalgam of mommy bloggers, food bloggers and beer bloggers. We found them by name, invited them for guided tours of our concepts, and they do a fabulous job of getting our elements right and positioning us right for their reader base. It’s been so successful for Smashburger that we’ve adopted it for Live Basil and Tom’s Urban 24.

So traditional broadcast media plays well with nontraditional social media and PR?

This PR, buzz and social-media approach works great because it does a couple things better than traditional media. It gives us a venue to speak to content awareness. There’s only so much you can say in a 30-second ad. The social elements we have let us talk about deep content, like what makes a Classic Smash a Classic Smash. It’s a one-two-three punch, with social media and PR up front setting up the content, and then we come in behind that with main awareness-building techniques. … But you don’t build awareness without people knowing what to expect.

What is the opportunity with Press Effect to help brands grow in the fast-casual space by teaching them the kind of marketing that’s worked for Smashburger and Live Basil?

The new market is a much more fragmented market than just TV and radio advertising. Modern brands need to recognize that PR, touch points, buzz and social-media marketing aren’t a choice; they’re a given. The opinion-leader consumer, the early-adopter consumer and the next-generation consumer all tend to look to those things first.

These brands have a unique opportunity to set themselves up about what they stand for and why they’re different. For any brand that believes that is what it represents in the marketplace, there’s almost a mandate to market through those channels. And then primary awareness leads to trial, which is enough to make a lot of people brand-loyal. But being in the sea change of fast casual becoming the preferred way for people to eat, you have to play in both arenas. Being empty in one would hurt a brand.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 7, 2013
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Tom Ryan’s involvement with the media agency Press Effect, which is a subsidiary of Consumer Capital Partners, where Ryan is a managing partner. Though Ryan is an executive with Consumer Capital, he does not have day-to-day involvement with Press Effect, a venture overseen by managing partner Stacie Lange and Consumer Capital founder Rick Schaden.

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