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In this episode of The Marketing Rapport, host Tim Finnigan chats with Jennifer Bell, the Chief Marketing Officer of Lettuce Entertain You. Jennifer shares insights into the company’s marketing strategies, focusing on their loyalty program and customer engagement.
Jennifer highlights the company’s journey in developing a custom app to engage younger customers. The app, a significant investment, successfully lowered the average age of their customer base and tripled enrolment rates. Jennifer also discusses the challenges and rewards of managing data across multiple brands, emphasizing the importance of personalization.
The conversation wraps up with Jennifer sharing her experiences with digital transformation, the importance of feedback, and the upcoming launch of their new app feature. She underscores the value of direct customer interaction and the role it plays in improving their services.
Tune in for a deep dive into the world of marketing from a seasoned professional’s perspective.
The Importance of Simplicity for Customers
Jennifer discusses the importance of simplicity and customer-centricity in marketing. She emphasizes the need to view things from the customer’s perspective, stating that what excites the company may not necessarily excite the customers. She also talks about the use of user testing to understand customer interactions with their app.
“It’s not about us. It’s all about them and what’s better for them. And you really have to focus on that to be successful […] One of the key learnings we had is this is again how you think as a marketer and how your customers think differently.”
The Journey of Digital Transformation
Jennifer shares the company’s journey through digital transformation, starting from a very entrepreneurial setup to a more standardized platform. She talks about the challenges they faced with multiple systems and how they embarked on a digital transformation to aggregate data points in one place.
“But what we realized is everyone was kind of doing their own thing, that, from a technology perspective, we did not have a tech stack or a platform which was standardized across the enterprise.”
Vendor Selection and Team Involvement
Jennifer discusses the process of vendor selection and the importance of involving the team in decision-making. She shares how some vendors they didn’t expect to perform well were outstanding, and some they thought would be great didn’t meet their needs. She also talks about the importance of empowering employees to make decisions.
“So when we set the requirements, We’re really careful to ask for things that we really need, and we actually kind of score based on, like, really nice to have versus absolutely essential.”
The Fear and Anxiety of Digital Transformation
Jennifer talks about the fear and anxiety that digital transformation initially created within the team. She emphasizes the importance of involving the team in the process to dispel these fears and make them understand that the transformation is aimed at making their work more efficient.
“Digital transformation, I will tell you, is a little scary. Because what I didn’t realize is just how it created some fear and anxiety within the ecosystem of our teams. Because what some people heard was, oh, you’re going to use technology to take away my job.”
[00:13:37] Jennifer Bell: “It’s not about us. It’s all about them and what’s better for them. And you really have to focus on that to be successful.”
[00:17:59] Jennifer Bell: “Digital transformation, I will tell you, is a little scary. Because what I didn’t realize is just how it created some fear and anxiety within the ecosystem of our teams. Because what some people heard was, oh, you’re going to use technology to take away my job.”
[00:22:47] Jennifer Bell: “Ask for collaboration and encourage an environment to have that was magical. And just the energy that it created, the ideas that were created.”
[00:00:00] Tim Finnigan: All right. Welcome to the Marketing Rapport Podcast. I am Tim Finnigan and I run, product marketing for Verisk Marketing Solutions. And just to give a quick little commercial about Verisk Marketing Solution is what our objective is, is we help power personalized interactions and, how to, and, and help our customers optimize market efficiency throughout the whole, consumer life cycle.
[00:00:25] So, With that being said, I’m excited to have, Jennifer Bell on the podcast today, and she’s the Chief Marketing officer of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants. And first of all, if you’ve never heard of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, you’re in for a treat, especially if you come to Chicago and some other cities too.
[00:00:42] they’re the best restaurants around and I’m sure Jen’s gonna tell us about that and, uh, amongst a bunch of other things. So welcome to the podcast, Jen.
[00:00:51] Jennifer Bell: Hey Tim. Thank you for having me today. It’s great to be here.
[00:00:55] Tim Finnigan: You are welcome. well thank you for, uh, for agreeing for me to hammer you with the hardest questions around. so just to level set for level set for our guests or, um, our listeners, what as CMO of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, like, can you just give us an idea, like not just your overall, what you’re uh, responsible for, so maybe some day-to-day stuff that you’re responsible for as CMO.
[00:01:21] Jennifer Bell: Sure, yeah. You know, a CMO has is a title, but what really does that mean? So basically for us, I run and manage all aspects of marketing and Lettuce Entertain You which is fortunate to have around 68 different brands. So there’s a Lettuce Entertain You brand, and then there’s a store brand, right? So one of our restaurants is Summer House or Wildfire, and each one of those brands is actually marketed by a team of people as well.
[00:01:53] So I oversee and manage all of that. I also oversee our loyalty program, which is a very important part of our marketing, our gift card program, which is somewhat unusual for the marketing chief marketing officer to run gift cards, but it’s a very important part of marketing for us, public relations, social media design, web and app development.
[00:02:17] So my team acts like a little mini agency for our restaurants and for our brand, and we’re so fortunate to have access to so many really rich content. Brands. We have a variation of guests and demographics, so, it’s a really difficult job. You can’t really be an expert because it’s forever changing.
[00:02:40] You know, I always said, oh God, if we just had one brand, I could figure out our customer. That would be easy. But we have 68 plus we have a lettuce customer, so totally keeps me on my toes. It’s always changing and it’s a lot of fun. And I gotta tell you, growing up in the restaurant industry, this was. My dream job is to be able to do marketing for restaurants, restaurant people are “roll up your sleeve, get down and dirty” type people, and we work hard and we have a certain energy and attitude and, literally it really was my dream job to do this.
[00:03:17] So very, very lucky, fortunate, and grateful.
[00:03:20] Tim Finnigan: So let me add in on the, gift card program. Huge fan of it. I’m just gonna give people a key in there. So if you get a hundred dollars, you get $25 for free. And what you do is you give the a hundred dollars gift card to someone else and then you take the 25 for yourself.
[00:03:41] Jennifer Bell: Yeah, that’s our holiday promotion. It’s not all the time, but from November the end of December. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, and again, that’s, that’s marketing. I was talking to someone today and they were talking about gift cards and for me, it’s the best form of marketing because you’re thoughtful enough to give a gift of an experience at one of our restaurants to someone you care about. And so to me, that’s the best marketing you can have really, honestly.
[00:04:10] Tim Finnigan: So Jen, I wanna get your thoughts: you had mentioned your loyalty program and when I think of loyalty programs, especially for you guys, it’s a way to sort of personalize that experience for your customers and get them in. Could you just talk a little bit about sort of the maturation of your loyalty program and maybe how you use data and personalization for an outcome, which I’m assuming the end consumer is always in mind, like that’s why you design it. But what’s the sort of maturation and your ideas of the loyalty program?
[00:04:49] Jennifer Bell: Yeah, loyalty program. First of all, it’s been in existence since I believe 1988, which is a very longstanding restaurant loyalty program. One of our founding partners, Bob Wael, he was a mastermind behind the Lettuce Entertain You loyalty program and Bob was a huge mentor of mine and, uh, we had a really interesting relationship at first. He was really hard on me when I was young, and then I kind of proved myself and then he and I were very tight and all the way up through his retirement. Unfortunately, he’s passed away. I promised Bob that I would take what he started and make it the best we can and to have this program live for a long time.
[00:05:31] So that being said, when I took over loyalty in 2014, RJ and Jared Melman, who are sons of Rich Melman, our founder, were taking over an aspect of our business. We’re really big into evolving, innovating, and technology. So one of the things we looked at was how to get consumers to enroll in our loyalty program.
[00:05:54] It’s pen and paper still. and then we were looking at the restaurants we were opening, and at the time it was Hub 51, Bob City, and these are real youthful brands, yet the average age that someone was when they enrolled in our program was 47. So we thought about “why aren’t we getting younger people in?”
[00:06:16] And so we noticed two things. Number one, it was a paid program back then, and so you paid $25 and on your first visit, you got $10. On your second visit, you got $10, and on your third visit you got $10, so you got $30 back. And it was brilliant. And this was Bob’s idea because all of the data shows that three is our magic number.
[00:06:34] Once you get someone to three visits, they become loyal and there are hundreds of studies that support this. So that skin in the game paid program was smart, but what it was doing is it was deterring younger people from enrolling to the program. We kind of recognized that. So we made it a free program.
[00:06:55] Then we were like, okay, they’re definitely not going to show a card-
[00:07:02] Tim Finnigan: Like the punch card, right.
[00:07:05] Jennifer Bell: Exactly, exactly. So we’ve gotta find something. So at that time it was an app, so we went and we developed an app. Well, those of you that have any experience developing app, it’s very expensive.
[00:07:21] And we looked into a lot of these white label solutions that we could maybe take advantage of. But we’re 68 brands in all these different markets. All these different price points and all these variables meant that no one size fits all app would work for us. So we custom developed an app, which was a huge leap
[00:07:43] of faith, it was a major investment and we launched it in 2015. I will never forget: Koch gave us money to do a small app that we had about 7,500 people in. So when we launched our new app, we had 7,500 people and it was February 2nd, 2015. Never forget the day. And we were like, “oh my God, here we go.” We put this whole marketing campaign behind it and.
[00:08:09] By the end of the year, our average age went from 47 to 42. So we got the younger people in. We tripled the amount of people that were enrolling from years prior and then we had about 400,000 people that downloaded the app that year, which was really hugely successful for us and we saw some incremental business.
[00:08:29] Now, the second half of that question was personalization. So now that we have this app, we have a responsibility with what we do with that app and how or what do we do with the data and information from our customers to make the loyalty program tailored to them. Well, I can tell you that the restaurant industry is not good at aggregating data.
[00:08:50] It’s just not an easy thing. Everything’s siloed. So it’s difficult and our customers are difficult too, right? So you would think there’s a lot of cross-sell. You would think that, the average person went to many brands while in actuality the average frequent finder goes to 1.9 brands, so not even two.
[00:09:09] and so we really had to get creative and we had to see how people were operating. We had to formulate promotions that was targeted. Of course, our different markets made a difference trying to enroll people. And really trying to strengthen what it meant to be part of a Lettuce Entertain You umbrella brand and understanding the value of all the store restaurants too, the, the specific brand.
[00:09:32] So we’re still testing and learning and, and understanding. What works, but we’re about to launch a new app literally in two weeks, and the whole app is about personalization. So what we learned is that the existing app was about, okay, here are the things we think you’re interested in. The new app is.
[00:09:55] Here’s all the things you are interested in, right? So it’s your name, it’s your account balance. It’s the restaurants you’ve made reservations at. It’s your favorites. It’s all about you and how we can make it easier for you and more frictionless experience with our restaurants and to create better hospitality using.
[00:10:16] Our technology. So we, we are never going to be done. And, um, the roadmap of features that we are intending to add is long. but it’s exciting and it’s fun and, our frequent diner customers are, are just amazing and they give us so much rich feedback and, they’re very vocal and we listen and we try to, you know, Do better.
[00:10:40] And so we’ve got a long way to go, but, we’re getting stuff out there. And then we’re gonna keep on adding and moving forward.
[00:10:48] Tim Finnigan: So Jen, when you were talking about the 7,500 to 400,000 for the loyalty program, when you, or when you got the app, I remember we first met, you talked to my marketing class and you were like, we just got to a hundred thousand. It’s like, cuz I think like that was the magic number. We needed that.
[00:11:10] Jennifer Bell: I’m telling you, it was so nerve-wracking. I will tell you that ignorance is so bliss when it comes to stuff like that, because if I would know what I know today, then I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to do what we did. It crazy, but I didn’t really know what I was getting into and I went all in.
[00:11:29] Sometimes I think that’s better, right?
[00:11:32] Tim Finnigan: Right. And you said a couple key things where when you said it was, what you thought or what the business thought the consumer was interested in, but using all that data and personalization, it really turned around to what the consumer is into. So, in my long windup, I noticed that on your app and, and as I think of like the apps that I like to follow and get me involved, or like Marriott, Bonvoy and United or right away they show me what are my points, what do I need to do to get to the next level?
[00:12:16] Jennifer Bell: Exactly, and then you can discover and engage. Yeah. So this new app that we’re doing is doing just that. And what we realized is, Wow. What you think you love about your brand and your restaurants is not necessarily what customers tell you they love, right? So you’ve got to take some of the emotion out of it and really understand what the data set show is showing you and really act upon it.
[00:13:15] Jennifer Bell: It’s difficult, but gosh, it’s so critical and I think that’s the best piece of feedback I could give you is really listen to your, your customers. And sometimes, like I said, I think we’re passionate group of people. We love what we do. We really get excited about things, but it’s really about getting your customers excited.
[00:13:37] It’s not about us. It’s all about them and what’s better for them and you really have to focus on that to be successful.
[00:13:46] Tim Finnigan: So to get some of the information, do you do anything like surveys where you try to proactively get that information?
[00:13:53] Jennifer Bell: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve done surveys in the past. What we do now, more frequently, is what we call user testing. So, we now work with some developers who will do some market research on our app and do some research about our customers, but then they’ll also talk to them and they’ll show them different things and they’ll see what they respond to.
[00:14:18] They’ll give them a version of the app and tell them to play around and to do different tasks, and we see how they interact. one of the key learnings we had is this is again how you think. As a marketer and, and how, how your customers think differently. so one of the things that in our world we have, loyalty reward dollars that you earn from dining.
[00:14:40] So you, you get points and that every 150 points you get a $10 reward. Then we also have is, you mentioned that gift card promotion, right? So we have gift cards that you’ll purchase. Then that holiday bonus that you got, that $25 we have that we have donations, we have comp certificates. But to the customer, all of these things are different to us, but to the customer, you know what it is?
[00:15:03] They’re forms of payment. So it doesn’t matter if it’s called a reward dollar or a gift card to them, it was all needed to be put in one place. And so we created a wallet, right? Which is all the forms of payment. And it was so like, oh my God, how stupid are we? Like how do we miss it? That was so, it was overwhelming calling them all these.
[00:15:23] Things and having them separate and we thought we, like, we were really clear on what it was, but you know, like keep it simple to the customer. It’s just money off my check and this is like what I wanna know how to do and to access it easily. And it was a really great lesson and a really like an aha moment for me and the team.
[00:15:42] Tim Finnigan: Let’s pivot a little. I want to talk about you as a CMO, and you mentioned a little of this, of sort of your marketing tech stack, like all these things that you’re trying to do. You mentioned the app, but you’ve got all these technology platforms to help your business do better.
[00:16:02] Like how as a CMO do you wade through that? You and I have talked about digital transformation, you know, in the past, but touch on that — for our people that are selling these services, how do they better reach you as a CMO and get in front of you? The second part of that question is what are some of those platforms that you’re using?
[00:16:24] So it’s a really good question, especially for a company like ours. So when I first started, I’ve been with Lettuce since 1999. So when I first started it was very entrepreneurial. So Rich Malman, he loved that about Lettuce. That’s why we’re not the same concept. You know, with a thousand locations, you wanted people to really express their passions and what they really enjoyed about the industry.
[00:16:50] Jennifer Bell: But what we realized is everyone was kind of doing their own thing. That from a technology perspective, we did not have a tech stack or a platform which was standardized across the enterprise. So we had three or four different POS systems. We had three or four different reservation platforms. We had our app, we had email marketing.
[00:17:11] We had things all over the place. And so of course we hopped on the bandwagon and did what we call the digital transformation, right? So I would say that the app started a lot of that, right? So, It really allowed us to have a channel to sort of aggregate things. and then it made us realize the value of everything and all those data points being one place.
[00:17:37] but we’ve had a team do several, what we call RFPs and you’re probably very familiar with that, where it’s arequest for proposal. So we give you a set of requirements of what we want and then you bid on this. Right? And so we’ve done it for guest management, which Reserv is reservations. We’ve done it for p o s, we’ve done it for carry out and delivery platforms.
[00:17:59] and we’re still working. We’ve done it for our general ledger, our HR systems. You name it. So, digital transformation, I will tell you is a little scary, right? Because what I didn’t realize is just how it created some fear and anxiety within the ecosystem of our teams. Because what some people heard was, oh, you’re going to use technology to take away my job.
[00:18:27] And that’s not what it intended to, right? It was just supposed to improve your life, right? So one of the things I learned very, very early on in the process is to get the team involved and part of the conversation to dispel any of those fears that making us more powerful and efficient is a good thing.
[00:18:48] It’s something that we want to work towards because it’s gonna free up time for you to do more impactful things. Because when we leverage and standardize this technology, there’s power in that. There’s things that we can do that will allow us to layer on some pretty cool features. You know, we’re exploring things like
[00:19:08] VIP reservations and being able to have a concierge that will have access to everything at Lettuce. And you know, those are things that weren’t ever possible before, but are possible now. And I think technology have always been such a proponent of technology. I think it does improve our lives, but I want to use it in thoughtful ways to create better hospitality because hospitality is the business.
[00:19:34] I am in better hospitality for our customers and that is essential. I don’t want to use technology because it’s new and cool and that’s what everyone’s doing. I want to have a thoughtful purpose behind it. And so, you know, I really think that if I can give anybody advice in going into, you know, finding the right vendors and is get your team involved and let you know, do your research and make them part of the conversation and.
[00:20:01] Really strengthen and have lots of conversations about what you want, what your desired outcome is, and then listen too; there were some vendors that we had, we usually just put the RFP out there and we tell as many people as we can because we want people to sort of send in the, you know, Uh, proposal and, then we’ll, we narrow them down and we meet with them.
[00:20:27] And, and some vendors that we totally didn’t expect to perform well were outstanding. And then some people who were like, yeah, you know, we definitely got to talk to them, didn’t perform very well. It was very, very eye-opening to me.
[00:20:41] Tim Finnigan: What didn’t perform very well?
[00:20:47] Jennifer Bell: Both in presentation and in proposal.
[00:20:52] So, you know, when we set the requirements, I think, you know, we’re really careful to ask for things that we really need and we actually kind of score on based on “really nice to have” versus like “absolutely essential.” And some of the bigger players, you know, didn’t want to meet some of the needs that are really core needs.
[00:21:17] And there were some really key guest management services that we were like, “we love this platform,” but couldn’t get some of the features that some of the other platforms were offering.
[00:21:30] Tim Finnigan: I love what you said about, and maybe I should do a whole different podcast about leadership learnings because I think it would be so good. It seems so simple, right? To empower your employees to help make decisions and, you know, if they’re on board and not being told what to do, and they’re actually empowered to come up with some of the what we need to do, you’re going to get more employees that are care about what the end output is.
[00:22:00] And if they’re more entrenched, they’re not looking to go.
[00:22:03] Jennifer Bell: Happier. Yeah, they’re happier. I think it’s so important. So one of the things that, when I took over again, I had a mentor as well. I started in PR and I had a mentor, her name was Sue Salzman, and she was an incredible publicist and her background in PR and I learned so much from her. And then I had already mentioned we had a founding partner, Bob Wael.
[00:22:30] And so Sue ran one of marketing. Bob ran the other, we’d get together and we’d talk. It was great, but it was just kind of how things were going. And we were doing our thing. They were doing their thing. And then when I took over, it was really interesting to me how some of the best ideas came across the pond.
[00:22:47] You know, like going to the other side and getting people like, you know, some of our PR teams had great ideas about loyalty and some of our gift card people had great ideas about social media and just being able to take down the silos, take down the walls. To ask for collaboration and encourage an environment to have that was magical.
[00:23:11] and just the, the energy that it created, the ideas that were created, the fact that, like you said, again, I talked about skin in the game with that pain, but like when someone sees that they had an idea and that we work to make it come to to life. They are invested and they are great employees and that is just so wonderful. So wonderful to watch, the energy and the enthusiasm.
[00:23:38] Tim Finnigan: It sounds like you recognize your people too because recognition is key. It should be part of the whole package. Like your base is this, your bonus is this, and you get this recognition if you do well. So I think that’s great. I’m a little jealous of your mentor. Like my mentor, when I was a sales rep, I went up to my mentor.
[00:23:56] I’m going to give his name so in case anybody knows him, you can yell at him for me. His name’s Jim Ramirez, and I was a struggling sales rep, and I go to him and say “Jim, I’m struggling with sales and how to overcome objections” and he said “Tim, maybe sales isn’t for you.” I’m like, wait a second.
[00:24:15] You’re supposed to lift me up.
[00:24:21] Jennifer Bell: That was his way to light a fire under you.
[00:24:25] Tim Finnigan: Yeah, there you go. So Jen, as we wrap up here, I do want everyone to sort of, uh, hear your take on sort of a different part of your job, and that’s the Windy City Smokeout, which is, part of what you guys do.
[00:24:41] If you just let everyone know, sort of talk about your 21-hour days during the Windy City Smokeout.
[00:24:48] Jennifer Bell: Yeah, well first I have two people that work with me in marketing that are incredible with the Smokeout. First, Jason Hollen Bake, who’s our partner and creative director. The logo, and I’ll tell you what the Smokeout is, but the whole festival, all the visuals are done by Jason. And then second, we have the marketing director for the Smokeout.
[00:25:06] Her name is Michelle Funk, and she has just done an extraordinary job building the team and getting everybody ready. But the Smokeout is a beast. It’s great. It’s 19 barbecue vendors, craft beer, and it’s some of the best country music you’ll ever hear or see. And there’s several operating partners that make it happen.
[00:25:26] But it’s super fun. It’s four days in July, and it’s mid-July and this year kind of going in. I think we’re pretty much all the tickets are, are pretty much sold out. I know we are sold out for Zach Bryant on Thursday and I know that it’s just an intense day and what I love about Smokeout is it’s a really great
[00:25:49] Representation of the great people of Lettuce Entertain You because everybody and anyone in this organization helps out, and some help out in huge ways. Some help out in little ways, but we’re all working together and it’s like a day or a weekend where you kind of get down and dirty with your fellow coworkers and it’s fun, although it’s hard work.
[00:26:16] You know, backbreaking labor sometimes. And it’s also really wonderful to see everybody come together and it’s one of my greatest joys is just kind of standing back and watching the teams work together. And you just see just how wonderful our people are. And I’ve always said the best part of Lettuce Entertain You is that we hire the best people.
[00:26:38] And, um, these are people you just want to be with day to day. And it’s really exciting.
[00:26:43] Tim Finnigan: And I think when you talk about best people, I know you have a great internship program and that experience brings them along. So, here’s my mini commercial for Lettuce Entertain You: if you’re in Chicago in the area, check out the app.
[00:27:00] And Jen, what’s the app under? Just “Lettuce Entertain You.” I have it on my phone if anybody wants to see it.
[00:27:06] Jennifer Bell: Yeah, it’s “LettuceEats,” all one word. And July 17th this year we’ll be launching our new app, and August 1st is our first gamification in the new app, which is called Scratch Off, which you could win up to five times points. It’s really fun. And yeah, download the app. And one of the things that I have to practice what I preach is I love feedback.
[00:27:31] So anybody listening, if you have feedback, you can reach me, and send it to us. We wanna hear from you. It’s what our customers tell us. That means the most to me. I used to tell all the front of the house servers that. They are the best salespeople that we have. And you know, you mentioned you’re in sales, Tim, but, and every time I would go talk to servers, I would ask them if they had sales experience and they would not raise their hands.
[00:27:55] And then I would be like, no. Every single one of you is like, you’re, you are talking to the guests. I don’t get direct interaction to customers day to day. You do. And they give us the best feedback, the best advice and customers do too. So we’re really open to it and we always wanna be better and, to, to make their lives easier too.
[00:28:17] Tim Finnigan: Yeah, and thanks for that, Jen, and thank you for being on the podcast. I have tried to use your name getting into restaurants. It does not work.
[00:28:38] I would rank Summer House as my favorite, then Hub 51, then Bob City. But it’s great. It was great having you on. I love some of the stuff that you’ve talked about, your leadership learnings, how to manage through digital transformation, and your marketing and ultimately, always having the end consumer in mind.
[00:28:58] So I think that’s a great message and thank you for being on the podcast.
[00:29:04] Jennifer Bell: Thank you, Tim. It’s always good to see you. It was fun. Thanks.