"Chief Brand Advocate" Jodie Conrad Serves Both Fazoli's and Its Customers
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"Chief Brand Advocate" Jodie Conrad Serves Both Fazoli's and Its Customers

Jodie Conrad may not have the advertising resources of some larger brands, but she’s learned how to adapt and still produce results that matter.

As CMO for Fazoli’s, a fast-casual Italian food brand, Conrad is responsible for all marketing and culinary functions including advertising, digital and social media, field marketing, consumer insights, off-premise business development, public relations, and new product development and testing. Sounds like a tall order but she has the experience and dedication to take it all on.

Conrad, who signed on as senior brand director in 2016, has been a quick study at Fazoli’s. One year later, she progressed to vice president of marketing, and in 2019 was named CMO. Before Fazoli’s, she honed her skills in the marketing departments at Wendy’s, Donatos Pizza, and Coca-Cola.

Covid-19 forced the marketing team and support office to work remotely, making it more difficult to stay connected and collaborate. The pandemic also altered the brand’s marketing message. “In terms of messaging, a major impact was to refocus our communications to promote Family Meal and off-premise sales,” she says.

Following the initial drop in sales and traffic brought on by the early days of the pandemic, Fazoli’s shifted hard to off-premise business, relying more on drive-thru, online, and third-party ordering. That kind of adjustment goes to the very core of what Conrad sees as a critical part of her position. “Stay connected to what our guests want,” she says – and find ways to deliver.

As the self-described chief advocate of the brand to the consumer, Conrad says she also must be the chief advocate of the consumer to the brand. “It’s everything about the consumer’s experience with your brand, so you have to be connected with and influence what’s going on across the entire organization.”

Describe your role as CMO.

I think of it as being the chief advocate of the brand to the consumer as well as being the chief advocate of the consumer to the brand. We need to stay connected to what our guests want out of their restaurant experiences, deliver on them, and then communicate with them in a compelling and relevant way why Fazoli’s is a great choice for them and their family.

What’s the most challenging part of being a CMO today?

Staying top of mind in such a fragmented market is always a challenge. We do not have the advertising resources of larger brands, but we work very hard to stay connected with our guests using tools like our CRM system, where the advantage of size and spending is less pronounced.

How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand’s marketing efforts?

The major way was probably like many others: pretty much overnight, the marketing team and support office were working remotely. It is certainly more challenging to stay connected and to collaborate this way, but we have several regular calls and Google Meets to make sure everyone stays informed. In terms of messaging, a major impact was to refocus our communications to promote Family Meal and off-premise sales, and to share the cleaning and sanitation measures we were taking because of their relevance to the guests’ needs during Covid-19.

What are the 3 most important keys to being an effective CMO leader today?

First and foremost, don’t work in a silo. Marketing is not just advertising, it’s everything about the consumer’s experience with your brand, so you have to be connected with and influence what’s going on across the entire organization. Second, you have to assemble and develop a great team where everyone knows their role. Diversity of perspectives and strengths within the team really helps to conceive, develop, and execute great initiatives. Last, stay curious and keep learning. Consumers are fascinating and always changing.

How do you prepare a marketing plan and execute the strategies?

We try to lay out our product marketing calendar about a year in advance. It may sound counterintuitive, but being prepared that far out actually allows us to be a bit more nimble and flexible when conditions change. For example, after Covid-19 hit, we moved up the launch of a “5 Under $5” value program (5 entree choices priced at $4.99 each) that we had tested earlier. Once you have the initiatives validated, for us it’s about aligning all our communications efforts to reach our consumers in a meaningful and influential way.

How do you measure marketing results and effectiveness?

Probably like most restaurant brands, we’re primarily measuring sales and guest traffic. Guest traffic is really the barometer of brand health, so we’ve been focused on initiatives that can broaden our reach and increase frequency of guest visits.

Discuss your core consumer marketing strategies and objectives.

Our initiatives are focused on 1) delivering great-tasting food, 2) providing superior value, and 3) making it easy for our guests to get our food when, where, and how they want it. When we do these three things well we build guest traffic.

How do you go about creating a customer-centric marketing and brand philosophy?

I believe that a key part of the marketing role is being the consumer’s advocate to the brand. In every organization I’ve worked, it can be easy to revert to an internal focus on what is easier or cheaper – not that ease of execution and financial performance aren’t important – but you always must bring the guest’s perspective to any changes you’re making to your product, service, or pricing. They are the ultimate judge and don’t know or really care what’s easier or cheaper for us. And if we don’t make their lives better or easier, they will find someone else who will.

Describe your marketing team and the role each plays.

Our team basically consists of three different parts: brand, field, and culinary. The brand team owns the consumer communications and insights. Field owns media planning and execution, both for the company and franchise markets. And culinary owns the product, both for new product development for the marketing calendar, and for continuous improvement to our core product line. I am fortunate to have a fantastic team that makes me look good. They are dedicated to providing a great experience to our guests and to helping company and franchise operators both be successful.

When it comes to helping the brand connect with franchise prospects, why is it so important for the marketing department to have a personal touch?

For us, 75% of our restaurants are franchised. It’s impossible for us to be successful if they’re not successful, so we need to form relationships early to help them develop opening plans and the right ongoing marketing initiatives. Our plans differ drastically across markets based on what mediums are accessible/affordable and what works in different areas. We don’t have the scale for a national marketing program, so we need to understand each market individually to maximize the impact we can get for our dollars.

How does this help your franchise sales and development efforts?

Prospective owners know us from the beginning of their journey and know that we’re part of their team. We’re here to help them be successful.

What methods or tools do you rely on to do this?

Overall, it’s still pretty old school, in that we’re focused on building a relationship between the franchisee and our media agency (Right Place Media) before the first restaurant even opens. We have regularly scheduled calls with each owner before, during, and after grand opening.

Do today’s prospects expect more from the franchise marketing department? What, and how do you provide it?

We have a relatively broad spectrum of franchise owners, from one-store owner/operators who live in the community to very large franchisee groups who own many restaurants across several DMAs. Regardless of how many restaurants franchisees own, they still expect us to be knowledgeable, responsive, and provide tools to help them win in the marketplace.

How is today’s consumer and marketing data helping you fine-tune your marketing initiatives?

A recent example is dealing with life in the era of Covid-19. In the past, you never really wanted to talk about your cleaning and sanitation procedures because they were just table stakes in this business. You didn’t even really want guests to see you cleaning, you just wanted them to see the finished product. Now, it’s very different. Consumer feedback is clear that they want you to tell them exactly what you’re doing to keep them (and our own people) safe, and to see you actually doing the cleaning and sanitation.

Describe the evolving role of social media in your brand’s marketing efforts.

It’s been important for a while now, of course. How we’ve evolved it is to bring a more human voice, a more human touch, to our social media posts and interactions. It’s really true in all forms of consumer communications, but especially important in social media, that you’re talking with consumers and not at them.

How do you work with other internal departments and does technology help?

OMG, it’s the difference between success and failure. We have regular leadership team meetings to make sure we’re aligned and communicating at the executive level. We also have regular project team meetings with operations, training, supply chain, finance, and IT to make sure everyone is informed about what’s going on and what’s needed from them. Technology is where the need for collaboration and communication is more pronounced than it’s ever been in my experience. In some places I’ve worked, I barely knew the IT people,. Now we’re on speed dial with each other. It’s just such a critical piece of the consumer experience.

How do you manage costs and budgets for the marketing department?

We lay out a budget at the beginning of each fiscal year. It gets reallocated dozens of times before the end of that year, of course. As a relatively small brand, we’re always trying to find efficiencies and ways to get what we need for a better price. And we need to be able to adjust quickly to address business conditions – good or bad.

Do you see vendors as business partners? Why/why not?

The short answer is, some of them. It doesn’t take long into a relationship to discover who is willing and able to help us build our business versus those just looking for us to fit into their business model. Living through crises like Covid-19 illustrated this very dramatically.

How have marketing strategies/tools changed over the past decade? How have you adapted?

The most striking difference here is in the area of digital and technology. It has become perhaps the most important component of convenience. Since marketing encompasses the entirety of the consumer journey and experience, making it friction-free is more important than ever. So a good part of our marketing initiatives are now focused on making sure we are easy to do business with – much different than just open your doors and let people come to you.

How is your marketing/branding strategy developed, and how does it flow through the system?

Each year, we align on the organization’s strategic imperatives and then develop our marketing calendar and initiatives to support them. We align at the executive and project team level, and also with franchisees to carry those out. There are regular calls and webinars with the company and franchise operators to share the vision with them and to get feedback on what’s working and what needs to be improved.

What advice would you offer to aspiring CMO executives?

Know your stuff. Work hard. Make sure everyone’s roles are clearly defined. Support and develop your team. Own mistakes and share credit for successes. Keep learning. And have fun.

Published: May 25th, 2021

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