In the early days of the COVID lockdowns, some restaurants and QSRs became makeshift grocery stores. They filled a gap for their customers when standard groceries ran low or just felt too dangerous to shoppers. But the self-descriptive brand Just Salad turned the idea into a new business to go alongside its 30+ store footprint in cities worldwide. This is but the first in a line of new business ideas CMO Andy Rooks and the management will be exploring in the next year. The impetus for all such innovation, Rooks says, is having genuine conversations with customers, not just harvesting data points. By virtualizing these conversations to accommodate the COVID crisis, this approach to research is bringing the Just Salad marketing team not only into people’s homes but into their refrigerators. As Rooks tells Brand Insider this week, the open-ended-qualitative approach to customer research pays off most when the researchers discover answers to questions they hadn’t even thought to ask. You can listen to the entire podcast here.
MediaPost: Every QSR responded to the crisis by refocusing on delivery and safety, but I thought Just Salad did a couple of things that were especially creative.
Andy Rooks: One of our core values is connection. One of the first things that we asked was, how do we maintain and stay true to that value when we are thinking about hygiene and cleaning and safety?
We elected a cleaning captain to each of our stores. There's someone that is designated to not only making sure everything is clean, as it should be, but also to answer questions. We pride ourselves on saying hello to customers as they come into a store, and so it's the same idea of maintaining those relationships and that connection.
MP: You personalized what was to other QSR brands just a concept.
Rooks: It was a natural step for us because this is how we had operated before. It was more of an evolution than a complete rethink of how we do things.
MP: A major innovation for Just Salad was the quick invention of the Just Grocery grocery delivery service. How was that generated?
Rooks: With customers delivering and cooking more at home, how do we continue to fulfill that mission? Well, we've got an amazing supply chain of healthy, really good, fresh ingredients. We can deconstruct that and sell that in a way that our guests want to consume it now. So during the height of the crisis, everybody wanted delivery grocery -- and that's what we gave them.
And so we were able to take what we had already built and rearrange the pieces and give a really quality product coming out of it. That was the thought behind Just Grocery.
MP: You also innovated in the delivery space with your Hub model that brought in a wider range of partners.
Rooks: We had a Hub program of office buildings. If you order before noon, you get free delivery and we batch delivery out to a very beautiful looking shelf that's located conveniently in your office building. And we saw our core was working from home. So how do we expand the Hub to residential buildings. And so we've signed on a number of buildings now where we're able to continue that same service with free delivery if you order before noon and get your salad fix or a wrap fix, just the way that you could in the office. You see a shelf full of beautiful looking salads. That's another great opportunity for us to show off our amazing product, so it's a fantastic touch point for u
MP: When you think about models like Just Grocery, the Hub, they are extensions of what you're already doing, but does it change your relationship with your customers?
Rooks: Our relationship with [customers] has changed quite a bit. So before, while you might have been going and getting lunch for yourself, now you might be going and getting lunch with your partner or your roommate. And that changes the dynamic very much from a KPI being order frequency to changes in cart size, which is a completely different way of thinking about it. We want to continue to stick with people that have stuck with us and so thinking about the way that their behavior is changing has been core to our evolution. We've done that by enlisting qualitative research. I know a lot of organizations like the data these days. But we used to get a lot of information by walking into our stores, our CEO walks into the store and taps someone on the shoulder and says, “hey, how is everything? What will you like, how is this feeling?” And that was the best way to figure out our customer and to get to know them a little bit better.
We’ve had to enlist some [virtual] qualitative techniques to replicate that. We started having some customers do video diaries of when they go in and order and prepare their Just Grocery delivery or when they order Just Salad, starting to take the time to interview our customers, our loyalists. How have their lives changed, how are they doing, how their habits around Just Salad changed and their mindset toward food in genera? Making sure to have real conversations with customers has been enlightening for us and it has informed, not only how we decided to do that first round of innovation, but has informed how we're continuing to build on that.
MP: How do you executing this and ensuring you process that kind of qualitative data usefully?
Rooks: Research is only as valuable as your ability to use it. We want to make sure that when we do have those conversations they are going to inform real change and real innovation. We send [some customers] an email that says, “Hi, we'd like to have a 30 minute conversation with you. We’ll give you a gift card in compensation for your time.” And customers love to be heard. It's a pretty easy recruit. Other times, we look to folks that we know for trying out a new product you take a video diary of how you unbox this certain product. The results are enormous. Because what you get from qualitative information like that, by asking open ended questions and observing, rather than proving or disproving a hypothesis is that you find out what you didn't know to ask. And so we have unveiled, all these new behaviors and little subtleties that we did not think to ask.
MP: Any good examples of things you didn't think of that actually came up and really impressed you?
Rooks: It comes down to minutiae. We watched some videos of people interacting with Just Grocery and we saw the way that people were stacking items in their fridge. We saw that the stickers on the actual packaging were hidden and then people didn't know what was what. That caused us to do a new iteration of our stickers that were on top of the package, rather than on the side. This is such a little stuff, but it makes a difference. When you're interacting with the product it has to be as frictionless as possible.
MP: Internally, how do you share this with one another and brainstorm the results of this sort of work?
Rooks: Well, there's no substitute for actually watching it yourself. We all on the executive team and on the marketing team went and watched these videos. So we've all seen them, and what I pick up is going to be different than what my design lead picks up. It’s going to be different from what my analyst lead picks up. And then we discuss the findings. Here's what we all saw together. So it's a great coming together moment. It's a collaboration moment.
MP: So pulling back a bit. You're launching these other sub brands. How you're thinking about this from a general branding perspective, regarding brand confusion, brand cannibalization, etc. How does this all fit together for you?
Rooks: We've given brand architecture quite a bit of consideration, especially given our highly descriptive name. When we go out and sell something that's not salad. It can be a little bit of a leap for us. And in the same breath, that is the name that most customers are familiar with. So that's our competitive advantage. We have that awareness in the market already. So it's a very tough brand architecture call. And I will say the next iteration of Just Grocery will not be called Just Grocery. We're thinking about how do these all work together. I think ultimately what we've come to is Just Salad being an endorser. So when you'll see that we launched a brand something like our Hub system or when we're talking about our grocery system or anything else coming down the pipe, we want to continue to leverage the familiarity that's there in the market with the Just Salad name and the great reputation that we've built up. Our customers love Just Salad. We would be foolish not to continue to use that. However, we've got this trick with our name. Where we're headed is, Just Salad will be an endorser of a sub brand. It's very expensive and time consuming to launch an entirely new brand. We would be leaving an advantage behind. We've given brand architecture some major consideration, though, as we continue to launch these new product lines.