Chili’s CMO Invites Consumers To ‘Be Our Digital Guest’

Monitoring and meeting consumer expectations at a time when the definition of health and wellness is changing is one of Krista Gibson’s top priorities. “Everything we are doing in the digital space is really around pursuing and reinforcing brand relevance,” said told in an exclusive interview.

Chili’s CMO Invites Consumers To ‘Be Our Digital Guest’

America is currently undergoing a “food movement,” where consumers are much more conscious of what they eat and where it comes from. This naturally impacts the casual dining space and is an absolute consideration for Chili’s Grill & Bar, not only from a menu perspective, but also in how it markets to consumers.

Indeed, Chili’s SVP and CMO Krista Gibson said monitoring and meeting consumer expectations at a time when the definition of health and wellness is changing is one of her top priorities. In this exclusive interview with, Gibson also spoke about her goals and plans for Chili’s digital guest experience, the company’s new loyalty program (with numbers to prove its success), and where the company is in its digital transformation journey. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your career path to becoming CMO of Chili’s?

Gibson: I’ve been in the restaurant industry my whole career—25-plus years. I started after I came out of graduate school. I interviewed at a lot of companies, and the restaurant industry spoke to me. I loved how the marketing had so many dimensions beyond just pure product. There was a whole experiential component that just sounded so interesting. Marketing in the restaurant category is about bringing all of these guest touch points together, and I was fascinated by that.

I went to work for Darden Restaurants. At the time, that was General Mills Restaurants, which owned Olive Garden and Red Lobster. I started there in an entry-level marketing position. I spent eight years there and progressively increased responsibility. I came to Brinker and became the vice president of marketing for [one of its restaurants], On the Border, a small Mexican restaurant chain. From there, I [moved over] to Chili’s to become CMO. I’ve been at Brinker for 18-plus years. What does a typical day look like for you?

Gibson: That is such an interesting question because I’d say no two days look alike and there’s truly no typical day. But, in general, it’s kind of fast-paced. I spend a lot of time in meetings, but the topics of the meetings are super-interesting, with a lot of breadth and variety. The meeting agenda could be anything from what’s the next-generation restaurant to reviewing our new products. I meet with our agencies and work with IT to come up with compelling ideas to improve our digital guest experience. And, of course, there are meetings with senior leadership on strategic planning. What are your three biggest marketing priorities for the upcoming year?

Gibson: We compete in a very cluttered category. It’s the casual dining category. And we are really battling for share of wallet. So we need to give our guests compelling reasons to spend their hard-earned dollars at Chili’s. We have three priorities around that.

The first is brand differentiation, and we are really pursuing that through our culinary and marketing strategy. Secondly, brand relevance. We are a brand that is 40 years young, I like to say. So staying relevant is really critical, and we are doing this through our digital guest experience. Everything we are doing in the digital space is really around pursuing and reinforcing brand relevance. And then, finally, the third would be top-line growth, which takes continuous innovation to meet the guests’ needs supported by great marketing—always a priority. So brand differentiation, brand relevance, and top-line growth. What about marketing keeps you up at night?

Gibson: Millennials. Casual dining, as a restaurant category, was really built and grew to the size and scale it is today through the Baby Boomers. Today we are rethinking our offerings so that we can appeal to the millennials as they enter into the life stage where they are dining out. So this includes, obviously, everything from digital guest experience, to our culinary strategy, to our service model, and to our value proposition. We are constantly thinking about how to make the brand relevant for millennials, who are more food-concious than generations past. Last May Chili’s revamped its loyalty programs to make them more digital. Could you talk a little bit about that? What exactly did you do?

Gibson: Yes. So we took a new-school approach to loyalty by creating a program that ensured ease of use. Our loyalty program is now totally digital, and guests always have access to their point balances. In our first year, we are closing in on a goal of 5 million guests in the program, which we are quite pleased with because that’s extraordinary growth. And we are also really pleased with the percentage of guests who are actively using the program. We have about 20% of our transactions now tied to loyalty. What are the three most important consumer trends you are watching closely this year, and why?

Gibson: The first would be the redefining of health and wellness. And I think what that is looking like today is about eating things that are good for me, kind of this idea of “real food” and food transparency. That’s our focus on the Fresh Mex and Fresh Tex—giving our guests freshness you can see. And tableside guacamole would be an example of that. So first is redefining of health and wellness.

The second is the importance of convenience. Our digital guest experience is really about addressing convenience. Our Ziosk tabletop tablets are about enabling guests to pay their checks and leave when it’s convenient for them. That’s a tremendous convenience play.

The third is the importance of leveraging technology for personalization and improving the guest experience. So health and wellness, convenience, and technology for personalization. What else can you tell me about your digital guest experience?

Gibson: We live in a digital world, and so being able to allow our guests to effortlessly interact and transact with our brand is how we think about our digital guest experience. One of our latest announcements is about a partnership with a company called Olo, and it’s really about revamping our online ordering platforms so that we can have more functions and more features, such as group ordering, pre-ordering, and paying for your order with loyalty points. So I would say that, in addition to the tabletop tablet and our loyalty program, this is another way we are pursuing digital. The next thing I want to talk about is digital transformation. Companies are rethinking their businesses and their marketing so they can better operate in the digital era. If you had to rate yourself, where would you say Chili’s is in its digital transformation? And where are you hoping to end up?

Gibson: Well, if I had to rate us, I would give us an A+ outstanding. We have focused on being a leader and a first-mover on guest-centric technology in casual dining. I think rolling out the Ziosk tabletop tablets, we were the first national brand to implement those. We also are thinking about digital transformation as a journey and not as a destination. So it’s this journey toward greater relevance and personalization, and everything we are doing is about what’s right for the guest and how to improve their experience.

Credera is one of our agency partners. We see them as being critical and helping us build this best-in-class digital guest experience. They’ve done a fantastic job in helping us shore up our digital and mobile experiences, and have helped us lay the strategic foundation and groundwork so that we can then build off of it and create next-gen platforms. We see them as an extension of our team. It seems like technology is key to Chili’s digital guest experience. How do you vet through the different technology providers? Do you have an in-house team that is supposed to be watching out for the latest and greatest? Operationally, how do you figure out which technology to use?

Gibson: We generally start from the perspective of the guest and think through what is something that would be helpful, beneficial, a win. … From there, we would always have a cross-functional team helping us vet the options that are available. So marketing, IT, any of our agencies that are strategic partners and have a strength or would need to integrate would help us as well. And let’s not forget supply chain.

But we … don’t even start from a place of technology. We really start from a place of how can we make the guest experience better? And is there a technology out there that can help us do that?

See what the Twitterverse is saying about CMO Interviews: