Kathryn Gill, Leisure & Hospitality Consultant at Berwick Partners, was delighted to speak with Dan Staples, Chief Marketing Officer of (TGI) Fridays, about his experiences and learnings through the COVID-19 crisis. Kathryn spoke with Dan about both the role of Marketing and the opportunities that the pandemic has created. Dan joined Fridays in December 2019, as part of a new and diverse Senior Leadership Team tasked with developing a future-proof strategy for taking the business forward. Before this, Dan held senior leadership roles at Betfair, Ladbrokes Coral, and online retailer Wiggle. Dan believes that future success lies in viewing the pandemic as a catalyst for positive and innovative change.
COVID-19 has brought new and unknown challenges to Exec Boards and marketing leaders. What has the pandemic meant for the marketing function? What has surprised you the most?
The pandemic has offered both challenges and opportunities.
The challenges are remote working, a constantly moving feast (and just a series of unknowns for the hospitality sector!), and a requirement for innovation/lateral thinking at a rapid pace. However, the opportunities heightened are team spirit and an increase in innovative thinking. Working remotely has arguably brought us closer together – daily calls, clear communication, and accountability. Ultimately, team spirit has become even stronger – everyone has a clear role to play and is seeing the impact of their efforts and brainpower.
As a Marketing function, we have had several new members join us during the lockdown and as CMO, I’ve only been in the business since early December, therefore making us a bit of an ‘unknown’ entity within the business. However, by delivering so much in a short period we’ve been able to build trust and support from the rest of the business, earning a positive reputation as a result!
Primarily, the pandemic has changed our focus and the speed at which we think and work, which in turn, has taught us how to shift and diversify the way we build customer propositions. In a world where restaurants were closed and revenue nonexistent, we had to adapt and pivot like never before. The way that we did this was by fully exploring the concept of ‘Fridays at Home’; we launched our ‘Click & Collect’ service, gave real focus to our delivery models and partnerships, and launched ready-made quality cocktails available to order online. And the innovation hasn’t stopped! Next week we launch Butcher’s Boxes – 3 variants of our new quality Scotch certified beef and ribs packs, as part of the growing Fridays at Home offering.
The thing that has surprised me the most is how the team has embraced working at such pace – the day-to-day deliverables have been accommodated, and effective coordination and collaboration have ensured that the bigger projects have remained on track and landed on time – so far.
Do you believe the pandemic will have lasting effects on the role of marketing within businesses? If so, how?
I do not doubt that there will be a lasting effect on marketing at Fridays. As for the effect on marketing as a whole, there will inevitably be significant added pressure on marketing budgets, and whilst controlling costs is vital for survival at a time like this, brands must not shy away from innovative and considered marketing investment. If they do, they will lose their ability to truly understand their customers and as a result, will fail to evolve their offering/proposition/relationship in line with customer desires. The 2008 recession provides lots of clear business cases as to why businesses must continue to invest in marketing during a Global crisis if they want to emerge stronger – Airbnb is one of them. The business remained committed to understanding its customers, placed the emergence of the ‘sharing economy’ at the heart of their marketing strategy and it now has 7 million listings around the world. The ownness of ensuring marketing budgets are protected is absolutely on marketing leaders – we all need to be able to create more innovative and ‘savvy’ strategies but be extremely competent in communicating the tangible benefits to our CEOs and CFOs, being comfortable with defending longer-term ROI.
Ultimately, we need to ensure that as a function we can deal with constant change; we need to be mindful of consistently building our agility, flexibility, and ability to effectively react at pace.
Friday’s restaurants were closed for three months, but trading continued via digital delivery and click & collect channels. What challenges did that bring? What opportunities have emerged?
The biggest challenge and one of the major opportunities created by lockdown was the need to diversify and find ancillary revenue streams. The real challenge with this has been to use existing web infrastructure and CMS tools for new purposes; adapting them as best we can to accommodate changing customer journeys. However, had we not been forced to close we would never have been able to give ‘delivery’ the right level of focus. We had never prioritised delivery within our restaurants and often this would be the first thing to be shut down on busy evenings, meaning there was no consistency for customers or our delivery partners. Therefore, this opportunity has provided us with robust ancillary revenue streams vital to the future, both from working with delivery partners, to repurposing our website to be an e-commerce trading platform, rather than just an information hub.
We also took the opportunity to fast track our plans for the brand relaunch and menu simplification. With a focus on quality and simplicity, we wanted to ensure our guests really felt a real difference. The extra time we have been inadvertently afforded has ensured we can make those improvements and changes very clear and coherent through a variety of touchpoints.
Ultimately, the overarching opportunity is that we can build a much stronger relationship with our guests. We have a reputation for celebrations and birthdays and, consequently, our annual frequency of visits is relatively low, despite having a loyal base of real fans. We need to demonstrate the relevancy and quality of our food offering to ensure we’re there for the big birthday, but also a quick family dinner on a mid-week evening. Plus, customers can take us home with them now – in the form of cocktails, butcher’s boxes, and perhaps merchandise! Watch this space.
Leisure and hospitality have always been a challenging and fast-evolving sector that has required skilled leaders. What do you believe the crisis has highlighted particularly about marketing leadership – good and bad?
I’m new to the sector (so clearly, I would say this!) but, I think it has highlighted the opportunity and value to be gained from bringing in skills and experience from other sectors to challenge convention and share learnings. It’s too easy to say ‘we’ve always done it like this’ or ‘guests won’t like that’ but broader thinking and a fresh approach is always good. We’ve got a great blend of hospitality experts who are enthused by the opportunity to work with those bringing fresh, innovative approaches from other fields.
Looking back over the past three months – what has been your biggest learning?
The value of making time for fresh air, headspace, and exercise…! I’ve been able to ride a bike more in the past few months than in the previous two years however, I have fallen victim to the unescapable home office; at 6am when I start replying to emails, I’ll occasionally forget the bike ride… but by mid-morning, I am usually regretting it!
Equally, I’ve also felt a renewed appreciation of true team spirit; working with good people, without ego, wanting to do great work, and have fun. Some of the fun may have to wait until more than six people can get together for a spot of lunch!