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Wendy’s CMO welcomes mobile marketing in food retail

digital retail strategy digital retail strategy
Photo credit:

Matthew Valokuvaus

Wendy's CMO, Kurt Kane, is one of our 100 marketing leaders driving retail innovation. Here, he discusses how the explosion of mobile has transformed the company's marketing.

To keep up with the today’s breed of consumer, marketing leaders are having to be digitally engaging, proactive and adaptive with their marketing strategies.

That is, at least, the three elements critical to any brand right now, according to Kurt Kane, Wendy’s chief concept and marketing officer.

The fast food restaurant chain was founded in Ohio, USA over 40 years ago and today represents one of the worlds largest, international, food retailers, with revenues surpassing $2 billion annually.

Those four decades have provided many challenges for Wendy’s and the retail industry as a whole, but the recent transformation of consumer habits and technology-based operations has had a profound effect on the competitive edge facing retailers.

More and more companies are having to engage with savvier consumers, operating on leaner, faster, more personal channels, and so executive teams are focusing their efforts into making sure their businesses remain relevant.

It provides stark reading for analogue dependent brands; I ask Kane if it’s as severe as that.

“Oh yes, without question, if you look at how consumers are engaging with brands and the way they want to get information, or shop and purchase today, it’s very much an on-demand economy – and it’s their demand driving it – meaning we have to step up.”

By that, Kane means remaining at the forefront of the quick service restaurants (QSR) sector, where the likes of McDonalds, Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts also dominate the national and international arena.

Staying ahead of the curve though is difficult for even the most nimble of brands, and for a company as large as Wendy’s, showing fleet of foot is key.

“The world used to be focused on the television broadcast, but our engagement now is generally stronger within our digital outlets; those outlets are actually fuelling and helping to determine how we market ourselves on TV now.”

As well as directly influencing what and where Wendy’s market, digital channels also direct personal conversations with consumers to brand spokespeople.

“Consumers provide personal and immediate feedback on our products, what they like and dislike for example, and that allows us to make changes almost in real time to make sure what we deliver is what they want – it’s been a significant period of change for us.”

That brand to consumer alignment is becoming more widespread as companies recognize the customer journey, and what that means for their own trajectories.

Digital channels allow for more transparency here because consumers are much more vocal about their needs on social media, what works, and what they’re dissatisfied about.

One particular channel Kane discusses here is mobile, and its effect on the customer experience.

“For us, we really look at mobile as the core [digital retail strategy] and as we’re a brand that is out there for the people when they’re on the go, we look to mobile to showcase our video or digital content. We tend to think mobile first because we have to assume that whatever people are engaging with is happening via a mobile context.”

It’s a trend that’s emerged over the last five years, depending on which sector you operate in.

It’s also a pervasive discussion, one now widely recognized as a cultural phenomenon – but still little understood by the people who need it most: brands.

That’s because it’s very simple for marketing teams to react to trends and get on top of them quickly.

However many companies are failing to understand the nuances associated with becoming a mobile-first, or mobile-ready, entity; without a strict road map of brand and customer journey, businesses find themselves out of touch with what their consumer actually wants.

This was a sticking point that Wendy’s had to outmanoeuvre.

“There was an opportunity for us to be able to make sure that we’re giving them content that’s designed to engage with them effectively in a mobile environment…which is where we’ve been pushing as of late, to create a terrific mobile ordering experience to position ourselves as real game changers in this space.”

Which shows a level of agility not necessarily associated with international corporations.

Wendy’s didn’t predict the scale at which mobiles grew, but they were prepared for how mobile would change how people would engage with them, according to Kane.

“Within the restaurant area, we’re not always at the front end of trends, but in this case you could just see what was coming, that people wanted to service themselves as much as possible, engage and get their own content when they want it, and so it became pretty clear where our digital retail strategy should focus on.”

These personalized, or targeted, content is much more impacting on consumers, as data analytical teams are discovering and informing their marketing counterparts, because it provides more meaning to their lives.

It requires much more of a seamless partnership between marketing and data teams however, which sometimes requires not only a company to undergo a cultural transition, but for them to alter their relationship with consumers, something that Wendy’s has had to initiate.

“It is certainly a hard [process] because as you go through a mindset change it really is about getting to know each customer in great detail with more sophisticated tools and metrics, but it all depends on how open your company is to the challenge of change…you have to make sure you fully integrate your planning and thinking into intuitive actions, and if that takes time, then so be it.”

For any digital retail strategy to be sustainable, it needs the whole system to work together.

That is where the time is taken, to foster alignment: from executive boardroom to front-of-house – irrespective of industry.

The digital consumer revolution, of which mobile is just one, albeit important, element, has forced these entire stack transformations of massive proportions, and for tech industry analysts and observers, it has been perversely enjoyable to see which companies capitalize on this trend and which do not.

One of the emerging reasons these digital pivots stall is that a digital retail strategy doesn’t pause to consider another important relationship: employees.

Whether companies provide them with the right technology and tools to best interact with consumers, or they’re educated and brought up to speed with the brand’s new objectives, it’s important they digitize with the company.

“There are a lot of restaurant companies that have not kept up to date with, for example, the world class point of sale infrastructure which we’ve taken the time to have our team members use. It’s important for an entire company to lean forward with the emergence of digital.”

Throughout our interview, Kane discusses “journey’s” and “blueprints”, “guidelines” and “objectives”, all in relation to a company beginning their digital, or in this case, mobile strategies.

Many companies evangelize a thinking period which allows them time to really assess what it is they want to achieve with any new marketing or digital retail strategy, and whether that aligns with their consumers’.

For Wendy’s, that time was probably saved by having a guiding principle started by their founder Dave Thomas.

“‘Quality is our recipe’ fuels us with a relentless belief that whatever we do needs to be in the service of giving the customer great experience, which gives us a very clear filter of what technology we plan to use: if it won’t help them, it won’t be of use to us.”

That aside, challenges here present themselves at a near constant level.

Brands like Wendy’s are constantly having to learn from mistakes as this trend develops, within a trial and error narrative.

When implementing digital and mobile strategies therefore, no amount of foresight and adaptability can prepare you for every hurdle.

“The challenges we have found are quite similar to what other brands in North America are facing, mainly, the constant evolution of technology that are affecting engagement methods and levels, and the pace of uptake.”

So instead of facing these future problems alone, brands are increasingly turning to each other to maintain relevancy, and Wendy’s is no different.

“We partner very closely with the best, the leaders of this space, to make sure we’re at the cutting edge of what they’re doing; we partner very closely with Facebook.”

Kane goes onto to explain that Facebook are testing theories and trying new methods to evolve their platform, and Wendy’s have been keen to get involved and learn how to stay ahead of this curve.

It’s a key message in the whole digital marketing debate, not just learning how to adapt to a mobile mature consumer, but discovering new and intelligent ways to predict the future.

“The challenge that’s out there for everybody right now is to stay as current as you need to, it’s that simple.”