Every marketer wants to crack the code on younger demos and the ways that digital entitlement has shaped millennials and Gens Y/Z. But not many CMOs with whom I have spoken plot it as out as specifically as Saladworks’ Mark Mears.
He has pored over the research, and folded in his experience leading the marketing for Cheesecake Factory, Noodles & Co. and Schlotzkey’s to create a concise profile of digital natives that informs all of the fast casual restaurant brand’s efforts.
Mears is tweaking every touchpoint with these cohorts, even the terminology he deploys across the franchise. His “4Me Generation” isn’t hungering for brands to be loyal to. They are looking for brands that will be loyal to them. Full podcast available at this link.
Mears will join executives from Sonic, Dunkin', Jack in the Box, Arby’s, Panera, Pancheros, Fazoli’s and more at MediaPost’s virtual QSR Brand Insider Summit on Oct. 27-28.
MediaPost: Before we discuss targeting younger demos, where does Saladworks sit in the market? What is its customer base?
Mark Mears: Millennial families – well, that sounds broad. It is basically young professionals who probably have some small children at home, they're starting out in their careers, their families and their lives, and they want to eat healthier and be active and live their best life. Our brand position is all around being original. We tap into this idea of originality and that we're all different.
We're in many different ShopRite locations in the Northeast. We are setting up an actual Saladworks restaurant inside the grocery store. So, nontraditional indeed. We're even testing a salad robot: it's a vending machine, and you can literally order a number of different ingredients and watch it made fresh right in front of you, with no contact.
MP: Explain the basic profile that you follow in pursuing younger demographics.
Mears: Millennials, and Gen Z right behind them, represent over 60% of the U.S. population, and they grow up in a digital environment. They grew up with this sense of control, and not in a bad way. I call it the 4Me Generation. The number four is important because I believe there are four key traits that link millennials and Gen Z.
The first one is personalization: Get to know me. I'm not just a random collection of ones and zeros. I'm a real live human being with actual feelings and needs, wants and desires. Make me feel like I'm valued.
The second one is customization: Make it for me. I may have special flavor, diet, health or convenience needs. Essentially, I want it how I want it when I want it, and where I want it. And if you can't provide that, I can find it somewhere else.
The third trend is this notion of self-expression: Let me be me. People love to share food, and they love to share the experiences that surround food. And if you've heard the term food porn, it's a thing.
Then finally, connection: Connect with me, but be relevant to my life stage or lifestyle, and connect me with something that's bigger than myself. And that's really important for this generation, to plug into what means something to them emotionally, that they can get behind.
MP: Let's make these concrete. How do you act on the “get to know me” trait?
Mears: This summer, as part of the Super Summer Salad-bration, we created a Super Fan contest. We invited guests who came in the most during the month of June. Those who earned the most points in a month would have an opportunity to win free Saladworks for a year.
Every week we would create the scorecard and show these different people participating. And then when we got toward the end of the month, and it looked like we had a winner, we contacted them and we got their backstory.
Found out, for example, one gentleman in Piscataway, New Jersey, went to Saladworks 41 times in the month of June. We said, “That's amazing! Tell us about it.”
And he said, “Well, I was morbidly obese and I knew I needed to eat better, and work out more. And so I made Saladworks a part of my day. And now I've lost 266 pounds. I'm now a personal trainer and I inspire other people to do likewise."
What a wonderful story! We got to know him. We actually repurposed that in publicity.
MP: How are you enabling the self-expression trait?
Mears: Well, we have social media contests from time to time. Send in a photo or post a photo of you doing X, Y and Z. And then we'll send a gift card to the one that we think is most engaging, the one that gets the most likes.
Again, our ability to integrate messaging among all of our earned and owned media when we have been hard-pressed to spend money on paid media, is really where the magic comes in for a marketer. It's being able to take an idea and stretch it across all platforms. So whether it's publicity, social influencing, social media, guest engagement programs (I hate the word loyalty), through our Saladworks Rewards Program, it's extending that notion of originality through self-expression across all channels.
MP: Why do you hate the word “loyalty”? That's the most common one in the QSR field.
Mears: I believe that words matter. I will always call our guests “guests.” Because I believe that we're all about hospitality, and when I hear the word “customer,” it feels transactional. It feels like we don't know you. The same goes for “loyalty.” I believe you can be loyal to something, but not necessarily be emotionally engaged with it or advocate for it.
Engagement means two-way interactivity. So if it's a “guest engagement” program, there's that word “guests.” It's all about hospitality. And that's why guest engagement to me is a deeper level of empathy. It's two-way interactive versus loyalty, which is more of a dipstick. It’s in and it’s out. That's really the beauty of building a brand as those long-term relationships versus just short-term transactions.
MP: And let's move on to connection, which is sort of a broad term that conveys both your connection to your guests, but also their connection to higher sets of values and ideas.
Mears: Nobody likes advertising. No one likes to be marketed to until they have something they need.
But the key word is relevance. If it's just a broad message that has no relevance to them, it becomes white noise and that's where you know they tune you out. But the more important piece with millennials and Gen Z is connecting them with something bigger than themselves. And this is where they want to be part of a movement.
When COVID first hit, we had a franchisee or two just on their own, putting together meals and taking it up to hospitals. A lot of these frontline workers are guests in our restaurant.
One of our franchisees called me one day and said, hey, we've got some guests that are saying how can they contribute. And they said, what if we just charge them four dollars and that'll pay for the cost of meal and getting it up to the hospitals or health care facilities.
And I said, well, that's great. But what if we charge $5? And it just came to me at that time. I said, what if we call it Fives for Lives, and there was a nice rhyme there. It's also easier for a guest to give you a $5 bill than it is to pull $4 out.
And so we created Fives for Lives, and we allowed franchisees to opt into it. We put out press releases to let people know we were doing it. We used our social media and our My Saladworks Rewards and a separate database to get the word out, because we didn't have the ability to do paid media at that time.
Well, we collected over $10,000 in about six weeks, brought over 2,000 meals up to hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes. And that laid the foundation for what we're doing right now, which is tying into No Kid Hungry. That's a national charity that helps feed hungry kids. 49 million Americans are what we consider food-insecure, meaning they don't necessarily know where the next meal is coming from.
And unfortunately, one in four of those are children, the most vulnerable among us. And so we felt like again being relevant and being authentic as a restaurant, we couldn't sit on the sidelines and let this pass.
So we got involved with our Million Meals Challenge, which is designed to raise over $100,000. And the way No Kid Hungry works is, they have the potential to take $1 of donation and through their government contacts and buying power are able to stretch that dollar into 10 nutritious meals. So we are inviting guests who want to come in and donate $1, that's great. If you want to donate $5 though, we’ll give you a bounceback coupon for a free salad on a future visit.
Those are very strong emotional connections that go beyond food and hospitality. They reach to the heart. They reach to the soul. And that's the connection that we want to make with our guests.