IHOP Marketing Chief Has Storytelling And ‘Breakfastarians’ On His Menu

You know what they say: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” That’s even truer for IHOP VP of marketing Kirk Thompson, who talked to CMO.com about what it’s like to market the fast-casual food restaurant.

IHOP Marketing Chief Has Storytelling And ‘Breakfastarians’ On His Menu

You know what they say: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” and that’s even truer for IHOP VP of marketing Kirk Thompson, who talked to CMO.com about what it’s like to market the fast-casual food restaurant.

Thompson also discussed some of the digital marketing challenges the 58-year-old organization faces, and how IHOP stands to gain from its history, which makes storytelling in a time when “content is king” ever so easy.

In addition, read on to learn about Thompson’s plans for the next 12 to 18 months, which consumer trends he is watching closely, and what IHOP is doing to improve the digital guest experience.

CMO.com: Can we start off with you talking about yourself and your journey to becoming head of marketing at IHOP?

Thompson: I have spent about half my career on the agency side of the universe and half my career with great brands that have great personalities and, for the most part, have a great love by those who buy them, shop them, and go there. I have to say, I am definitely a product of having spent half my time on the agency side and half my time on the brand side—and I am a strong advocate of that. I think it just gives a hugely consulted-to, problem-solving, listening-skill-oriented, creative mindset to thinking about business problems and business opportunities.

I spent my agency side with McCann Erickson. I worked about half of that time on a brand that I ultimately joined—Coca-Cola. I had a great run with Coca-Cola. I spent half my time there in the headquarters office working on promotions, global marketing, and global activations. Most importantly, I worked on innovation, which was a really great pivot point in my career to begin to pick up new product work and product concepts, see the importance of consumer research, the importance of anticipating trends, and, importantly, that operational mindset, along with good marketing strategy that you need to launch and bring forth new products.

Then I shifted over to the world of hospitality, and I came to work at Hilton Hotels. Across the time that I was at Hilton, I worked on all of their full-service brands. I started with mother brand Hilton and eventually went to luxury brands Waldorf-Astoria and Conrad. Then I finished my time there mostly working on Doubletree. There was just a ton of opportunity there for me to expand past traditional television, creative, POP, and media planning and really begin the journey on the digital and social process, since it was still the early days of digital marketing—or what would become digital marketing.

I then shifted to retail. I worked at Westfield Mall, a branded mall experience that really took my visual and social skills to the complete next level, and I picked up working on and overseeing customer service and community relations. I’ve been at IHOP now for about a year-and-a-half, which really is a tremendous place to be—a brand that causes people to come out and smile just like our logo.

CMO.com: What is it about the agency world that you feel prepares marketers for the brand side?

Thompson: To do well in agencies means very quickly understanding what it means to work with all sorts of research, insights, trend data, and analysis. Also, [agency folks] are on the spot and on the stage for dealing with the moment and dealing with circumstances or competitive things that rise out of nowhere, or public circumstances that arise out of nowhere. You have to be fast enough to think through that, make a persuasive argument for a recommendation, and move immediately into execution. At the end of the day, good marketing is only as good as good execution.

CMO.com: What is the biggest digital marketing challenge your organization faces?

Thompson: The biggest challenge we face is converting and capturing digital attention, digital share of mind, and turning it into true traffic. We just fundamentally believe that at the end of the day, digital and social should be as commercial as anything else in our media mix. And our consumer touch points, their role, should be to engage our consumers and our fans and followers in the right ways: via the right channel, at the right time. The biggest challenge is more and more about the process, a method, and the metrics associated with taking digital marketing to a traffic driving and transaction driving mode.

CMO.com: How are you using digital to improve the guest experience?

Thompson: That’s a critical part of our digital strategy. No one visits a restaurant these days without capturing, sharing, commenting, photographing, or interacting at any given moment. That has elevated guest service, guest attention, and customer commenting to a new level. We take advantage of this consumer trend to utilize and gain real-time input and comments on how things are going. It gives us a new way to not only engage with that particular guest, of course, but, importantly, helps us continue to shape, improve, and fine-tune what our customer experience process is. So what things are they satisfied with, what things do people feel are lacking, what things surprise and delight them?

Today digital is also a contributor to our training and development program. We think about training our teams in our restaurants to do the very best jobs they can, be it service, engagement, or fixing and anticipating guests needs. Those are factors that now come as much from digital as they do from observation. Our service platform is so critical to us as a restaurant because it allows our guests to make a comment about menus and for us to mind that in terms of delivering relevant news or exciting promotions and things like that.

A specific example that I might point to in this case had to do with an offering that we just started to test and pilot. We have a couple of restaurants that feature a coffee bar with espresso, cappuccino, latte, Americana, the whole nine yards. That came very specifically from an additional piece of feedback that our guests continue to give us. Guests were telling us they love International House Americana coffee blend. But the truth is, more and more of them are drinking other sorts of coffee drinks as well, and it just seems perfectly relevant, perfectly credible, and authentic for IHOP to have all the coffee beverages. It’s a breakfast restaurant.

CMO.com: What are your top three marketing priorities for 2016?

Thompson: First and foremost, truthfully, we are an owner and creator of the breakfast-all-day concept. We launched the “Breakfastarian” concept into the lexicon last spring, and the truth is, that is home base for us. We are and have been the International House of Pancakes since the day we opened in 1958. So it’s always important for us to stay innovative, stay fresh, stay seasonal, stay relevant, stay exciting in what we offer in breakfast choices. That’s what people certainly come to us for and enjoy all day, any time of day, every day. So that’s job one, always to stay true to absolutely who we are and what our strength is and what our guests call for us there.

And the second thing has to do with how we continue to market and promote all that menu innovation that we do. It’s important for us to take advantage of what we are doing with the menu, beyond television advertising, and be as relevant and in the conversation and traffic driving as we can in digital and social media. We amped up our digital and social media investments, platforms, and contacts starting about a year-and-a-half or two years ago, and it has been a significant focus for us because it took us from being purely television- and radio advertising-based to relying on digital channels.

Our digital strategy is focused on staying in touch with people’s daily lives throughout the day, all day, and giving plenty of reminders and plenty of conversational fun about IHOP experiences. Digital and social media and being truly woven into people’s day-to-day lives—that is job two for us. It’s a constant reminder about coming together at IHOP over your favorite breakfast.

The third priority for us is about ensuring that we have a pipeline of new products and foods and new menu items. We are an innovative restaurant. People look to us to bring fresh, new, fun solutions, whether those are for specific seasons of the year, like holidays or during the summertime when we have our summer stacks of pancakes that feature seasonal flavors, or specific special activations, special days, or special events that we hold throughout the year, including National Pancake Day, Scary Face Pancakes, or Share a Smile Day in association with No Kid Hungry. Those marketing aspects rely on great innovation in our marketing, in our pipeline, and in our menu development pipeline.

CMO.com: How has mobile changed the game and how IHOP does business?

Thompson: It has truly become the primary screen of choice for most of our consumer segments. The truth of the matter is, we’ve had to really think very executionally, as well as strategically, about mobile because it is so much replacing how people interact with content [or is used] in conjunction with television, since three-quarters of people are actually watching television with a second screen in their hand. But the fact that mobile content now urges, expands, jumps off of content that people see on television or video content and expands it, engages the people, invites them to share and participate, has made us all the more diligent about making certain that our content form is mobile-friendly and, importantly, that that job I talked about in the beginning helps us capture and convert to actual traffic and transactions.

So we are really in the midst of continuing to transform the way we think about mobile and the content today, but obviously mobile has many other functions, including transactional business even for restaurants. And we are taking strong looks on how to evolve that over the coming years.

CMO.com: So what’s most important for creating a top-notch mobile experience?

Thompson: I think, above all else, it has to be easy to access, easy to navigate, and easy to interact with. Mobile content must be interactive and should invite people to participate and allow them to do so.

We have promotional content that we’ve inserted into mobile more directly these days. I think the biggest tip I would give is the more you keep that at the fingertip, literally and figuratively, the better off you are. It invites people to invite IHOP into the conversation more regularly. So I know from our own experience, we just featured a number of fun things, pieces of content that are easy to share and easy to comment on, and also are very pertinent to what we are doing at any given time in the restaurant.

As an example, in January we had an all-you-can-eat pancake value offer. Starting last year, we gave it a bit of a dramatic name for mobile and digital content, called #Panuary for January pancakes. This year we actually interacted with people by having them send us photographs, mobile, obviously, being the primary platform for that. And we engaged our pancake artist to convert them into pancakes. So people had living, breathing examples within media of them sending photographs of themselves or friends or something else and converting them into a pancake and sending it back to them and posting it up. It was such a great way to bring attention to the promotion, but, more importantly, it was an immediately interactive experience for our guests.

And that really is the biggest tip I would give. Mobile’s biggest success for us, and for any marketer, is to get people to interact and continue to share the experience.

CMO.com: What are some digital-marketing trends that you believe will crop up over the next 12 to 18 months?

Thompson: We are watchful, as are most people, of the potential and coming impact of smart TVs and how smart TVs take us to screen behavior and even further. Today I have a television screen, and I have a handheld of some form, and when I get to a place where I’m interacting with a smart TV, I’ve got it all in one, and they are back and forth and interacting with it. I think we aren’t quite sure how that’s going to evolve and unfold over the next year-and-a-half or so. But we know that is a critical to watch and to be participating in and to think about the future of digital marketing.

The second thing just has to do with fundamentally increasing emphasis evolving digital beyond just measures of engagement to true traffic or transactions.

CMO.com: I noticed IHOP is very active on Twitter. Why Twitter?

Thompson: Twitter is our No. 1 social platform. It is, not surprisingly, where we find more passionate and engaged followers of IHOP. The reason we jumped more aggressively into working with Twitter is because it is where the most new and innovative conversations around IHOP have been taking place.

CMO.com: Storytelling is big buzzword in marketing. How does IHOP tell stories? What is the brand story you are trying to tell?

Thompson: I think one of the most powerful things about the IHOP brand is that there is an unlimited number of stories that are told by our guests, whether they are children or all the way up to seniors and everywhere in between. It’s a 58-year-old brand that has been part of people’s lives for over half a century. We have guests who came to us as children, of course, who are now bringing their grandchildren. We have servers who started early in their careers and built their whole lifetime and career of not only working in the restaurants, but, in some cases, actually then turning themselves into franchisees and running restaurants. It’s just palpable the number of stories that we have that just organically come from those who have enjoyed coming to IHOP and everything that has happened over our history.

So storytelling for us is actually pretty easy. It just comes all by itself, all nice and organically, over a great plate of pancakes. And that means tapping into that, from a marketing standpoint, tapping into that behavior, is just easy, it’s fluid, it makes sense, it’s genuine, it’s articulate for the brand. It doesn’t require any sort of promotional spin to it. We can insert ourselves into that at any time. Our story fundamentally is we are a place to come for breakfast any time of day, served fresh, a warm, friendly hospitality. But that’s the perfect backdrop not only for people to come and enjoy time in the restaurant, but it’s also the perfect backup for them to sit at a table and tell stories themselves. That’s the power of a nice, comfortable, family, casual but really warm and inviting restaurant experience. And it means they tell stories on our behalf easily.

See what the Twitterverse is saying about CMO Interviews: