Ad Review Prediction: Red Robin’s New CMO Cooks up Plan to Re-energize Brand

Steve’s breakdown: This interview in Forbes reeks of a new ad agency review. In fact, we had that feeling back in August when we reported that Red Robin Appoints New Chief Marketing Officer.

GREENWOOD VILLAGE, CO: When Red Robin wanted to revitalize its position in the increasingly competitive gourmet burger market, it tapped industry veteran Denny Marie Post to become its new CMO. With executive leadership positions at Starbuck’s, Burger King and KFC, Denny brings a wealth of category experience to her role as a change agent for Red Robin.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss how she is approaching her new challenge.

What is the most significant change you believe you will leading at Red Robin?

I arrived at Red Robin at the point where the brand was in need of some focus and some reinvigoration. It has been very successful for 40 plus years, but the category of gourmet burgers is exploding with lots of new kinds of service options.  It seems like every morning I open up my mail, there are three more restaurants that are wondering about entering the “better burger” space. And quality, innovative gourmet burgers is the heart of what Red Robin does.

When you walk into any organization as the newest member of the team, you discover much about what “we do and don’t do” or “we’re this way or we’re that way.” I’ll give you one quick story. We won the Best Burger in Denver from one of the local TV stations that does an annual “best of” consumer poll. Well, this is the market where Smashburger started and there are two great local brands that are traditionally very, very strong.  In addition, Five Guys is aggressively coming into the Denver market, so it was in the mix too.  But in this particular poll, Red Robin placed on top.

Our PR team said “Let’s run an ad to celebrate,” and the first reaction they got was, “We don’t brag.” So my response was, “You know, that’s not bragging, that’s competing.” As we started to work on the ad, the team was reticent about putting in the other restaurant names and I said, “Well, it’s important people understand the context and who we topped. In a way, we’re showing some respect by acknowledging that they were also in the top five.” There were lots of brands that didn’t make the top five.

So, the biggest change that I’ve got to drive is an attitudinal change about being more aggressive in terms of competing, as well as being more focused and more nimble. Many organizations have fallen into their processes, but the processes are beginning to generate diminishing returns.  The biggest thing is to cause the organization to relook at how to be successful, and that includes looking at what’s really working for us and what’s not.

What do you hope to accomplish in your first 100 days?

Really get a strong foundation for who the brand is and the background, the understanding of the brand as it’s perceived, not only by all of our constituents but most importantly by our guests. And acknowledge the facts and the challenges that we’re going to have to address. We need to face reality and take a fresh look at the business so we can frame the strategic direction for the next year and clarify what we really have to take on.

And then I’m also assessing my team and the structure. I’m a big believer that strategy drives structure and people. Strategy is starting to fall into place. I’m working closely with the rest of the executive team and some of the outside resources that we have on-board. Research had fortunately been commissioned before I arrived but data came in after I got here, so we’re really trying to mine that and be sure that we’re working on the right things.

So, step one is assuring our strategy is at least codified or shaped. Then the next step is making sure I’ve got the structure to support it and ensuring that we’re prepared to move quickly into next year with some testing and other activities on a national level. And then beyond that, I’m really getting to know at least the first level of my team. I have a much smaller team here than I’ve had before, but I really want to understand what makes them tick and what they know, sorting out what their hopes and dreams are and how I can make them a reality.

What lessons did you learn the hard way from your Burger King, Starbucks and T-Mobile experiences that you’re applying in your new role?

I’m very much about my team, and I guess in the past I tended to focus more on the people who were working for me than the people I was working with, my peers. And so I’ve consciously come in here with a much more intense focus on developing relationships across my peer base from the get go, as well as with my boss.

It helps that Steve Carley, our CEO, is both a former marketer and a very hands-on restaurant operator. Steve has a really remarkable balance in terms of understanding both. He’s also not in any way, shape or form a micromanager. I really pushed to spend time with him, with Eric Houseman our COO and with my key peers, particularly my partner in restaurant operations. We have a new CFO, who arrived just about the same time I did, so I’m developing a strong relationship with him.  So often your success as a marketer, particularly in the restaurant business, all comes down to the ability to execute profitably at the front line, so I’ve gone out of my way to really understand that.

I’ve also spent quality time working in our restaurants to understand the front line and field level operators’ perspective and be able to speak credibly to them. I think I’ve tended to put those things off in the past, relying on what I thought were pretty good instincts. But nothing takes the place of actually experiencing it or taking the time to really get to know individuals and functions.

Is there a quick win that you’ve had or hope to have in the very near future?

We currently go to market with roughly three promotional time periods a year. The tactics for the next period were already set when I arrived and the team was struggling with an ad that was meant to go on air. And it just was never going to work. They’d shot three spots and they felt like they needed to air the third and I just said “No. Let’s just let it go and go back to one.” There’s certainly no worry that we would have worn anything out. So we pulled forward an ad that had done very well for us in the past and then we altered the media schedule to significantly increase the weight in market and it’s paying off for us. So even being able to help tweak and make some different decisions even as late as a few weeks before we were going on air made a difference in the business. It goes back to being flexible, taking a fresh look at the business and not being afraid try a new approach to achieving success.


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