Sonic Drive-In Leans On Text, Email, Apps To Drive Sales

People are addicted to the drinks and burgers sold by Sonic Drive-In. But it’s an immediate thing: they walk in craving a slushie, and “our message is based on creating that crave,” said Kim Lewis, vice president, digital strategies at Sonic Drive-In, speaking at MediaPost’s Email Summit on Tuesday. 

No wonder that email is not the best channel for inspiring those impulse buys. The most powerful tool is SMS — it drives “that immediate action, one day offers, limited offers,” Lewis said.  

Sending a text message may seem more intrusive, but “email is more impersonal,” Lewis noted, adding that text requires "quite a bit of trust.” 

The company is about to launch a 50-cent corn dog offer — i.e., “today only.” 

“We don’t know if they are driving and do a U-turn, but these are immediate actions,” Lewis noted. Still, it may take a couple of days to see the most noticeable lift.



What good is email? “Email is one of best places to increase general awareness,” Lewis said. 

In addition, email is a great place to feature products in all their glory and offer instructions — “anything that can be read at leisure, and don’t need immediate actions,” Lewis continued. 

The real goal is to pull recipients into the Sonic app. When customers enter, that’s when they get a truly personalized experience. 

But there are limits. “We try to be very cognizant of not crossing that line into that creepy realm,” Lewis said. 

For instance, the brand may say, “Here’s a surprise or exclusive for you,’ but we don’t spell out exactly why you’re getting it,” Lewis said.

Lewis added, “It’s .not necessarily, because you buy so many hamburgers all the time — we don’t want to reinforce something that may be a little bit of an indulgence.” 

Sonic does have a centralized customer database, but it is “now undergoing a big renovation,” Lewis noted. 

The chain offers customized digital screens at drive-ins in which the customer’s name and profile picture appear if they have ordered digitally. Customers have had a very positive response, Lewis said. 

Creative aside, all messages — of any sort — must pay their way.  

“It’s tied to sales and traffic, and ultimately to profit,” Lewis said. “These messaging channels are the workhorses that have to build results.” 

That’s critical, given that the chain is 95% franchise-owned.

“We can’t say, ‘Well put this out as a loss leader.’ Our franchises are highly attuned.”



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