How FOCUS Brands Doubled Down on Digital During COVID-19

    The company is honing its digital strategies to create a more direct relationship with the customer.

    Technology | January 12, 2021 | Chloe Arrojado
    Schlotzsky’s drive-thru rendering.
    Schlotzsky’s
    Schlotzsky’s expects 99 percent of new restaurants to have a drive-thru, and its creating prototypes to get there.

    For the restaurant industry, adapting to the digital space over the past year wasn’t just a matter of innovation; it was a means for survival. Still, some brands have used the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink and retool their digital strategies to be better prepared for the future.

    FOCUS Brands is one company aiming to be ahead of the curve as it relates to the digital footprint of its brands: Cinnabon, Jamba, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Schlotzsky’s, McAlister’s Deli, Carvel, and Auntie Anne’s. Prior to COVID, the company had already made an effort to establish consistency across the brands with things like app software, loyalty programs, and websites.

    “We knew pre-COVID that digital innovation would be critical to our growth as a company, and we began investing in people and tools during the last couple of years to ensure our infrastructure was ready for the future,” says Claiborne Irby, senior vice president of corporate strategy at FOCUS.

    Dan Gertsacov has been guiding FOCUS Brands’ digital pivot as chief commercial officer. His experiences in technology—with stints at Google, venture capital–backed companies, and financial tech, to name a few—have informed the brand’s approach to the digital space.

    “Today, digital is a commercial capability. It’s not only marketing and how we buy search and display ads, but specifically, how do we sell an electronic invoice through an app or a website through us or somebody else?” Gertsacov says. “That’s the digital capability required of every restaurant group going forward.”

    A key part to FOCUS’ digital-forward push, he says, is revenue management. The ability for dynamic pricing has changed what’s possible with menus, so now the company can more easily create game plans that strike a balance between value orientation and growing the average check through higher-quality food items.

    This allows a much more fluid approach to pricing that considers customers’ different pricing sensitivities. “So you and I are walking by Jamba. I’m looking at the menu saying, ‘I don’t know how much money I’ve got in my pocket for the smoothie I want to get,’ and you’re going to order the smoothie regardless of the price. Right at that moment, that is exactly when I should get a 20 percent discount sent to my app,” Gertsacov says. “It’s really a revenue management discipline tool. Identify a customer and give them a differentiated price than the person in line ahead of them.”

    READ MORE: Schlotzsky’s Drive Thru Enters the Future

    The relationship between a brand and its guests is now a two-way street; customers opt into these databases when they sign up for loyalty programs and the like, while companies provide value for the customer through exclusive, personalized deals. This hyper-personalized strategy not only demonstrates how a restaurant can be more nimble with increased access to data, but also how it can better meet consumer expectations.

    Of course, customers are experiencing restaurants through digital platforms more than ever. Many of the consumers using digital platforms to order food during the pandemic had not used those tools before, bringing a whole new customer base into the digital fold. FOCUS Brands’ Irby says these customers entering the digital space expect more customization, convenience, and accessibility to keep them coming back. But getting customers to buy into the relationship is a challenging feat considering the countless other restaurants wanting their attention. When Gertsacov first joined FOCUS as chief marketing officer, he says, his job was to address that challenge.

    “We have iconic brands. We have to refresh the belief system of each one of our brands and make sure, in every communication, that people can see what they believe is what we believe,” Gertsacov says. “It’s not about the burrito, the sandwich, the spud at McAlister’s—it goes beyond the food. It’s about shared values.”

    After building a community of customers around the brands, the next challenge was keeping them there. This is more than just sending a barrage of emails, which Gertsacov says can inadvertently turn a customer away. Instead, the strategy is segmenting consumers and tailoring messages that appeal to their preferences, whether that be in price or taste.

    Irby says FOCUS also invests in this relationship by taking control of the customer journey from start to end in hopes of creating a fully branded and frictionless experience. Much of this goal entails maximizing efficiency via online channels, especially third-party platforms. Whereas before, if a guest clicked “order” online, it would direct them to a third-party platform, the goal is to establish a more direct relationship with guests digitally. FOCUS partnered with Google Food, which is just one channel but allows the customer to order directly from a brand when searching for food.

    As the company is 98 percent franchised, FOCUS’ franchisees are a big part of the company’s considerations moving forward. Gertsacov says that when franchisees have a better playbook, they’re able to extend better service to their customers, who then start visiting the brand more both in-person and virtually.

    With these new strategies, FOCUS can understand the needs of its customers and give them value for their loyalty.

    “We do not want to abuse the trust and confidence of consumers,” Gertsacov says. “FOCUS Brands is trying to provide a compelling reason for why you should choose us more often for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack. In that sense, we can provide value to our franchisees, and our franchisees can surpass expectations of their consumers.”