Local at Scale, the Chili’s Way

Throwing your own birthday party requires a certain hutzpah. It assumes that you will know your guests at a deep enough level to get them to join in on the celebration. If you are an established restaurant brand, for instance, you might offer a signature drink at a very low price, all day.

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know before checking the social media announcements – today is Chili’s birthday. To  honor this date, 3/13, the brand is shaking up Presidente Margaritas for $3.13. The annual tradition is joined by other events throughout the year, nationally and locally, keeping the Chili’s experience personal yet consistent across more than 1,600 locations (in 31 countries and two territories).

To succeed at this level, and to provide the one-to-one experience that dining guests expect in the mobile-first age, requires expert management of data across all communications channels, and from the corporate HQ on down to the individual store location (and the mobile app or other digital properties), where the customer comes in contact with their preferred experience.

From a branding and menu perspective, Chili’s went back to the basics a few years ago, paring back their menu and celebrating their history and strengths.

Michael Breed, VP of Digital Innovation for parent company Brinker International, told DMN, “Chili’s has been around since 1975. Our passion is making people feel special, so this is about really reclaiming our roots, our core restaurant menu of burgers, ribs, fajitas and margaritas.”

He added, “We reduced the menu by 40 percent to focus on our core equities and stake a claim on being the experts in those categories and reinforcing that with our guests.”

Aside from consistency off the grill, and at the bar, Chili’s reinforces their message to customers by staying in contact through their Rewards program. According to Breed, after a visit, guests will receive a message that thanks them for coming, and encourages them to return with a special, personalized offer.

These customer channels have been fine-tuned over the last four years through a close partnership with data-driven agency Ansira. Using data from past transactions, Chili’s can recognize purchase patterns and create seamless communications across all channels.

“Chili’s went back to reclaiming their core, and they really nailed it,” said Jess Hilton, Ansira’s SVP, Client Partnership. “Their guests feel special because Chili’s can predict what they’re likely to order. By integrating the technology across their platforms, they can leverage that data on a multitude of channels, making guests feel like they know them.”

A personalized email from Chili’s takes into account the many ways that one guest might be distinct from another. A “free appetizer” reward, for instance, has a customized header image and subject, taking into account the customer’s purchase history and channel engagement. The email will also either drive the customer to a restaurant, or ask them to redeem it online, depending on past behavior. Making pickup ordering painless has helped Chili’s grow their eCommerce play. It increased 20 percent in the last quarter of calendar 2018. Chili’s “To Go” currently represents 12 percent of the brand’s overall business. When customers arrive to pick up their order, they let the restaurant know they’ve arrived. An associate will bring out the order and thank the customer by name.

Ansira’s CEO Daina Middleton said, “In-person contact (is important). Personal touchpoints have a place that doesn’t necessarily serve the same needs as eCommerce, or a mobile app. But a customer looks at it all as one experience. What type of experience does the customer expect? If every moment matters, data isn’t just about the digital experience, but also the physical space. It’s our job to translate the data and build a customer experience to make it matter for the brand.”

In a hectic world, Chili’s is interested in competing for pickup orders; but they also realize that in-restaurant dining is an experience that visitors are looking for to spend time with family and friends.

“Our core is families with busy lives, who value that time to connect with one another, take a break and be taken care of and connect over the table,” Michael Breed explained. With a tabletop touchscreen, guests punch in their phone number and pull up their account, triggering relevant offers that can be used on-the-spot. They also provide feedback from their visit, which will make future contact even more informed. From out of this, Chili’s has orchestrated an array of in-store promotions beyond the brand’s birthday. But as a more settled part of a community, patrons might find the occasion worth celebrating. Certainly, the drink specials help, too.

“Local events take (the conversation) one step further, not only carrying the brand message to the guests, one-to-one, to the tabletop, but also taking the brand message and filtering it through relevant local content,” said Jess Hilton.

With two-thirds of Chili’s locations being corporate owned, and a good number of others locally-owned, the effect of consistent and personal communication is no small feat.

“The partnership with the Ansira team helps a large brand feel local at scale,” Breed stated. “Whether that’s personalized offers or local turnkey events, it all feels very, very local. At Chili’s, we care about kids, hunger, and education.” An annual “Create-A-Pepper” fundraising campaign benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and has raised over $70 million, complemented locally by individual “Give Back” events.

These events speak to the broad range of experiences that one brand can offer. But they have to depend on data to remember who they’re speaking with. Drink promos are very popular among a certain, legal-aged audience. But would you continue to offer drinks to someone at your own party, after they’ve politely refused?

According to the company, they’ve learned from experience to communicate drink specials to only those who’ve purchased drinks in the past. Drink specials, it turns out, drive some of Chili’s highest unsubscribe rates.

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