This year, Jollibee—a worldwide fast-food chain founded in the Philippines with roughly 1,300 total locations—is celebrating its 45th anniversary and 25 years in North America. However, head of marketing Luis Velasco describes the concept as a challenger brand. 

Jollibee entered the U.S. in 1998 by way of California. Today it sits at 93 North American units, with 66 of those being domestic restaurants. Roughly half of the U.S.-based stores reside in the Golden State because of its proximity to the Philippines. In 2022, the company opened a flagship restaurant in New York City’s Times Square. 

Velasco says the chain is looking at “aggressively expanding in the next three to five years.” The next milestone will come toward the end of 2023 when Jollibee reaches 100 locations in North America. Beyond that, franchising will likely become part of the growth story. Currently, all North American and U.S. restaurants are company-owned, but Velasco says Jollibee is securing the proper legal documents, agreements, and contracts to bring operators on board. The chain’s long-term goal is to reach 500 North American outlets by 2028. 

“Hopefully that is the start of a lot of activities and efforts on getting people to know more about our brand—growing our network through all these partners that we hope to have a very productive relationship with moving forward,” Velasco says. 

As the marketing executive explains, Jollibee began its U.S. journey by catering to its loyal Filipino American audience—and still does. For example, the brand offers Palabok Fiesta, a Filipino noodle dish covered in garlic sauce, sautéed pork, shrimp, and egg.

For the past couple of years, Jollibee has worked to broaden its audience to a wider range of North American consumers. But it’s not as if the company had to change any core competency to reach more U.S. guests. 

“As a brand, we’re very passionate about food,” Velasco says. “I’d say even to a degree that we’re obsessed about great-tasting food. It’s in our DNA. In fact, our mission is spreading the joy of eating. So it’s really about taste. Who doesn’t want great-tasting food at the end of the day? Who doesn’t want great value? We pride ourselves in friendly, warm hospitable service. We are still doing it. It was really a matter of just expanding the audience that we were speaking with and making all these things known more to them through the channels and touchpoints that they were into.”

One major way Jollibee identifies new customers is through influencer marketing—a channel that’s risen swiftly in recent years due to the proliferation of social media. Velasco says it’s “100 times more impactful” for someone to talk about the brand as opposed to the concept talking about itself all the time. The tricky part about this avenue is there’s no science to it. Velasco wishes there was a formula to follow, but it’s a relatively new opportunity for most of the industry. There are certain guardrails Jollibee uses to find the right partnerships. 

Naturally, the first course of action is finding someone who fits with the brand. Jollibee never engages with an influencer just for the sake of it, Velasco says. The chain spends time researching how the person’s personality and image align with the restaurant’s values. And to ensure authenticity, they also must have a genuine love for the company and its menu. The second  point is to recognize upfront that this can’t be treated as advertising. Each creator has their own approach and treatments. For the most part, Jollibee gives them the freedom to do as they please because influencers are the best expert on reaching their audience. Another objective is to not use the same strategy across all social media platforms. Jollibee turns to content creators with the knowledge that styles differ among Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok. 

Velasco also notes that influencer marketing doesn’t strictly mean working with people who have large online followings. 

“We take a look at other brands we can collaborate with,” Velasco says. “We take a look at events we can be in. And for us that’s part of influencer marketing—being in the event and the activity right in the middle of where your audience is.”

As Jollibee continues to speak with these Gen Z and millennial customers, it’s crafting a digital infrastructure to streamline their experience. A month after the COVID pandemic shut down businesses nationwide, the brand announced a delivery partnership with DoorDash. About a year later, the company followed up with a mobile app that supported delivery and in-store pickup. Jollibee is now exploring the addition of loyalty and rewards, an offering that’s become table stakes in the quick-service industry. The current priority is fixing a lot of backend systems and processes to ensure consumers aren’t being bogged down in friction. This has happened before with Jollibee, Velasco says. He adds that the brand has experimented with digital tools that “didn’t work as well as we thought it would because the system just wasn’t ready.”

“Our view is that digital has to make sense to the brand and the company,” Velasco says. “So to us, digital is an enabler for accessibility, an enabler for convenience, an enabler for a better customer experience at the end of the day. I gave a talk at a conference about three months ago and I said there’s about probably 2,000 booths that were selling all these digital tools and that doesn’t necessarily mean you need all these 2,000 tools or solutions in your brand. It has to make sense to both your brand and the customer experience that you’re trying to improve.”

Velasco understands that as a challenger brand, Jollibee has to “work harder and be better.” That’s a hurdle the chain embraces—everything it does must be elevated in order to compete in the U.S.

“We’d like eating to be a fun, happy, joyful, memorable moment for a lot of people, whether it’s because of the food they eat or maybe it’s because of a shared meal with someone,” Velasco says. “Maybe it’s a memory that they have when they’re in the restaurant consuming our products. … We’re passionate about food. We’re passionate about joyful, happy experiences. We’re passionate about providing the service, going the extra mile. We’re passionate about being able to serve our customers better every day.”

Fast Food, Growth, Story, Web Exclusives, Jollibee