Bloomin’ Brands’ 2017 Focus: Build Up Loyalty Programs

Loyalty is aligned with the experience of Bloomin' Brands' restaurants — which include Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s, Bonefish Grill, and Fleming’s — says Chief Brand Officer Chris Brandt.

For Bloomin’ Brands — the corporate parent of casual dining franchises Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar — the current primary competition isn’t other restaurants. It’s all the on-demand dining options consumers have available from their couch as they tap out orders on an increasing variety of smartphone delivery apps.

That’s the challenge Chris Brandt, the ‎EVP and chief brand officer at Bloomin’ Brands, outlined earlier this month at Brand Innovators Mega-Trends conference in Las Vegas.

One of the main tools Brandt believes can be used to get people out of their homes and into the company’s restaurants rests on expanding the loyalty program Bloomin’ Brands unveiled last July. (“The main tool is a great consumer experience inside the restaurant,” he notes.)

Bloomin’ Brands rolled out the Dine Rewards program nationwide offering consumers 50 percent off on their fourth visit to either Outback, Carrabba’s , Bonefish, or Fleming’s. The program gives the flexibility to choose when, where, and how they want to dine while earning rewards with no cost to enroll.

“We’re definitely looking to pour the gas on our loyalty program,” says Brandt, who joined Bloomin’ Brands after five years at Taco Bell, where as CMO/CBO he helped launch that chain’s breakfast daypart. “We feel it’s something consumers really want. We want people to more easily explore the different brands we have.”

Brandt and his team plan, throughout 2017k to drive the development of an in-venue “experience” with loyalty as a foundation.

“Consumers, in general, value experiences today much more than they used to,” he says. “They value experiences even more than material goods, because experiences are something you can share. They remain with you. So the questions we have to answer: ‘How do I create an experience that you can’t have at home? How do I make that experience great and something you’re willing to leave the house for?’ Our brands are about human connection. That’s why you go out to eat with your friends, or family, or coworkers, or whatever. You’re trying to make a connection and we’ve got to create a great experience that enables that to happen.”

At the moment, the Dine Rewards program seems to have momentum, as it just passed 2.5 million members, Brandt notes.

GeoMarketing: During your Brand Innovators’ presentation, you talked about your approaches to “innovation” and how it’s “part process, part product.” Could you elaborate on that?

Chris Brandt:  Look, there are all different kinds of innovation. Product innovation has always been considered more “sexy.” It’s the part that sits front and center for consumers. The other part of innovation is just trying to generate ideas. How are you going to generate ideas and solve problems?

The reason it’s so exciting to me is because it’s your chance to create the future. It’s your chance to do something that hasn’t been done before. Your chance to be first. And that is important in a world where people are constantly looking for what’s new. And that’s where the “process” part of innovation comes in.

When I was at Taco Bell, one of the things we did was to come up with a more efficient testing methodology that was cheaper and faster. Nobody saw it externally, but it enabled us to retest more quickly and put more faith in the market.

My expertise isn’t in figuring out how to try to fix processes — I just get things done and sort of steamroll over it. That’s maybe why I really value people who can innovate these processes, find faster ways to get things done. Because that’s going to lead to all these other ideas getting to market more quickly.

There are plenty of people who are very good at that. I don’t think that they get the credit they deserve for innovation and making things and getting things to market more quickly,—or just making things happen more quickly versus people who develop products that are a little bit more sexy.

The balance of product vs. process also goes to the eternal marketing questions around the value of Big Data: there’s so much of it available, but how much of it is actually actionable right now?  What’s the connection between that sense of innovation and how it emerges?

Right, there’s just a sea of information that’s easy to get lost in. A big part of dealing with that is asking the right questions. What are you solving for? What is the problem? Be careful not to ask a lot of leading questions that you already know the answer to when people are talking to you.

At Yum Brands, [co-founder and retired Chairman/CEO] David Novak was a big proponent of finding out what’s the perception you want to reinforce? You’d be surprised how simple that sounds, but it was profound in terms of shaping the strategy. It’s easy to get enamored if it’s your product, or your particular idea. But if you’re thinking, “What are the fundamental things that consumers want, and that we’re gonna try to solve for?” that will lead to clearer, more original set of responses and concepts.

At Bloomin’ Brands, do we want to build the perception that this is a great place to take your family? Do we want to build the perception that this is a great place to celebrate special occasions? Do we want to build the belief that this is a great place for happy hour?

Some of those things can be fundamental. Those are really strategic questions that can shape a lot of where you’re going. When you don’t ask those kinds of specific questions about perception, you’re just running around like a chicken with your head cut off. You’re just trying to fix every little thing as opposed to looking at the big picture. That’s how you discover your priorities and focus as a brand.

In terms of Bloomin’ Brands online-to-offline marketing focus, what were the most important initiatives from last year and how are they evolving into 2017? Was it the Dine Rewards loyalty program?

As a company, we really recognize that people want to access restaurants via their phone and via apps. We’re seeing a rapid transition to mobile from desktop. We did launch Dine Rewards. It was really one of the first programs that was multi-brand, because you get it across all four of our restaurants.

It’s really simple. You visit three times, you get half off up to $20 from your next visit at Outback, Carrabba’s and Bonefish; it’s up to $40 off Fleming’s. It’s easy to keep track of it. But the challenge was that the two of our biggest brands, Carrabba’s and Outback, had their own app. So the question was, “How do you integrate this loyalty program?”

The point was not only that it stands as an umbrella over all the brands, but that it integrates into those apps so they can identify which brand was used. It almost seems like magic the way we can  quickly pull up the details about a visit to one of the restaurants and tie it back to digital.

We know why consumers visit the website. There’s really three or four reasons. One is to find the location. One’s to check a menu. One’s to see what the wait is, or to get on the waiting list. Another is to make a reservation. Those are the big things that we did from a digital standpoint to make sure we’re reflecting how consumer behavior works, and what they’re looking for when you get there. How quickly you can get to that feed. That’s what we take pride in from a mobile standpoint.

What are the key accomplishments you’ve seen from Bloomin’ Brands’ loyalty effort?

Our Dine Rewards program just passed 2,500,000 members — and that’s a clear validation of what we’re building on.

We’ve only started to tap into the level of knowledge that we have about the consumer, so that we can serve up offers to them that are the most relevant. We know on a data level, if you ordered fish the last three times you came, we should probably send you an offer to incentivize you to come in soon.

We already have had a pretty big email database. That’s another nice thing about these businesses, versus Quick Serve Restaurants. We know who our consumer is because they tend to use credit cards more than they do at QSRs. We can tap into that data about where they go and when. The challenge for us is how to do we target them on a mass scale? How do we bring relevance to those targeted efforts that are gonna make us more valuable, and put us into consideration?

The Outback Steakhouse brand remains the same inside and out.

How does Bloomin Brands, with 1,500 restaurants across the contiguous U.S. (as well as Puerto Rico and Guam) and 20 countries manage global marketing messages down to the regional and local level? For example, in our previous conversation, you pointed to Outback’s popularity in Brazil. How does that translate 

The Outback brand in Brazil is one of the top brands in the country — full stop. If it’s not the biggest food brand, or most popular food brand there, I’d be surprised. You can feel it when you’re in the restaurant. There are one- to two-hour waits on the weekend in an Outback. It’s a millennial crowd. It is the place to go and it’s fun to be in a brand that is cool and hip. It’s amazing the affinity that people have for the brand. They really want these brands to succeed. If you ask consumers, “Do they want interesting and new food experiences?” They answer, “Yes.”

From an international standpoint, the Outback brand is basically the same. It’s got the Aussie flavor. It’s bold and fun and a little bit irreverent. The execution at the restaurants is outstanding. In Brazil, they don’t quite have the competitors that we have here in the United States. It’s a little more challenging here, but it certainly is fun to go there and see what the brand is. It certainly used to be that here, and I think we can get back to that. I think that’s part of the challenge.

You always want your brand to be fundamentally the same, but they really tailor their marketing plans to their marketplace. Things that work in Brazil don’t necessarily work elsewhere, and vice versa. But it certainly is great fodder for other ideas. You can always borrow and adapt some things that work in one country or region elsewhere.

How much autonomy do local franchises have, such as when using a geotargeted message or social media marketing program?

When it comes to social media, it really needs to be locally generated, for the most part. I don’t really want to sell social; brands often try to sell social and it’s a mistake. It’s very difficult and it’s not the right aperture for the consumer, because they want to interact with the brand as a person.

I talk about building sales overnight and building brand overtime. Social is the brand over time, and so I want these brands to be really relevant in culture. That’s what helps ultimately build a lifestyle brand.

What is the location strategy Bloomin’ Brands employs? Is Geotargeting and the use of geo-data a major factor in your marketing, globally and locally?

We use geotargeting at different times for different things. We do it for store openings. We know that you need to be probably a 10- to 15-minute drive from our restaurant to make it work. When we do store openings, or we do other things like that, we use a lot of geotargeting.

Bonefish Grill

From a media standpoint, I call it the “media rights”: you want it to be the right time at the right place, with the right message, on the right platform for the right consumer.

We know people are making a lot of decisions about restaurants. Within an hour or two before, a person will tend to ask themselves, “Where should I go tonight?” If we can serve up an ad there just to be top of mind, that works.

We’ve used PlaceIQ, xAd, and Placed. Here too, the challenge is, how do we scale it across our businesses? How do we make it bigger from a national standpoint, versus much more localized effort?

All our outlets have to feel like a consumer’s local restaurant. All of our restaurants have a managing partner there who’s an owner. Their role is to be the mayor of that vicinity and make it feel like a local place, as much as it’s part of the Outback chain.

When it comes to choosing the kind of technology platform you work with what’s your approach? And what’s the best — or worst — way to approach you with a pitch for Bloomin’ Brands’ business?

When you can show me, invest the time, and do a bit of an experiment, that’s what tends to work. Saying, “Hey this is what we did. Here’s what we found. Are you interested in maybe pursuing it?”

If you have something that is specific to my businesses, that works best. Is it harder? Yes. Does it take more time from you? Yeah. And I’ve got to be honest with you, your chance of just sending me an email and asking me for a 15-minute conversation, or a lunch, is very remote if you don’t have something tangible to share with me specifically about my brands.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.