Leading and innovating the marketing strategy for a 1300 location franchise concept in a highly competitive industry and retail environment is a monumental challenge in itself. For almost ten years Heather Neary, CMO at Auntie Anne’s, and her team continue to lead Auntie Anne’s to new levels of growth year over year. As part of the FOCUS Brands® International family of brands owned by parent company Roark Capital, how does a simple product concept evolve into a ubiquitous brand that becomes a category leader and, more importantly, what are the keys to her success?
We spoke with Ms. Neary as she shares candid insights into her unique perspective on her marketing approach, the relationship between national marketing strategies and how thousands of franchisees unify to execute locally against the single goal.
CMOO: Food offerings are evolving rapidly in malls. Food courts, brand names, dining options, various food formats, retail. How does Auntie Anne’s contend with the increased competition?
Heather: “We do this in several ways. Contrary to what many may think, our best marketing efforts happen when excellent service is delivered at the store itself. When our crew members are engaged, enthusiastic and passionate about their work, they are truly our front-line marketers. Also, our menu innovation team has been phenomenal at staying on top of trends and shifting dining habits. We offer a variety of items that can be considered either a snack or a meal, depending on how our guest is using the product. We continue to look for ways to evolve our menu through new items like our mini pretzel dogs and our ever-changing line-up of lemonade flavors. Look for several flavors next summer, too!”
CMOO: The mall environment is changing. Shopper traffic, buying habits, the demographic shift of the shopper. How does Auntie Anne’s adapt and stay current or ahead of these changes?
Heather: “Understanding the customer journey that our guests embark upon before they choose Auntie Anne’s is critical to determining our marketing strategy. If we assume that a guest simply walks past our store, sees a pretzel, and buys it, we are simplifying the process and missing out on lots of opportunities to engage with the guest in meaningful ways. The snacking space is definitely an impulse, there’s no doubt about that. Keeping Auntie Anne’s top of mind when a guest is ready for a snack is critical for our continued success.”
“Understanding why people come to malls is critical. Is it social? Is it for exercise? Is it to browse? We understand that our guests often window shop while they’re in the mall and then perhaps make their purchase online or elsewhere. It’s critical for us that we stay top of mind while our guests are in the mall. Despite the decrease in mall traffic, we believe we have a good opportunity to make sure we’re the snack of choice when a guest is in the mall. Our new mobile app is really helping us on this front.”
CMOO: Mall shoppers are not specifically there to patronize Auntie Anne’s. They are there for another primary purpose so engagement must start before the counter. Are there ways to engage customers beyond the counter?
Heather: “I don’t want to give away all our secrets, but ultimately, understanding how a guest makes a decision about their snacking or meal choices helps us understand when and how we talk to our guests. Our social space is very important to us and we love to engage with guests through social media in both an informative as well as a chatty way. Our app also helps us to stay top of mind for our guests. With our app, we can understand when our guests are coming to us and create offers that are tailored for that specific guest.
“Guests do have a voice. With the advent of social media, engagement with your guests is immediate. How you react to that feedback, positive or negative, and what voice you use to respond to them can mean the difference between a long-term, happy guest who will gladly talk positively about you to others, and a guest who is disgruntled and uses social media to attack your brand. Don’t use corporate speak, use the voice of your brand. Be genuine. We really enjoy engaging with our guests in the social space. It’s fun to see their passion and energy for the brand and it also helps us to recognize our crew members who are doing the right thing. Conversely, it’s very helpful to quickly understand where we have opportunities to improve and address those issues with our guests. Those social conversations are really important for the growth of the brand and we value our guests taking the time to connect with us in that space.”
CMOO: What is the franchisees role in the growing of the customer base for Auntie Anne’s locations?
Heather: “Our franchise advisory council is heavily involved in all our marketing efforts and their input is critical for the success of the brand. Our franchisees also work with us to develop meaningful local marketing programs that cater to the unique nuances of each of our locations.”
CMOO: How does your team correlate national and franchisee initiatives?
Heather: “We typically publish an annual calendar and share that broadly with our franchisees. We ask that they use the general themes for the year to develop their local marketing plans. We have local marketing specialists, too, who are here to help our franchisees fine-tune their local marketing plans and also work with franchisees who may be geographically close to one another to execute co-op programs, which are also quite successful.”
For Auntie Anne’s and Ms. Neary, the intense listening needed to understand the guest purchase cycle and engaging them both at the point of sale and when they are carrying on the course of their lives is critical to staying relevant with their most valuable asset.
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