These are indeed strange times at Buffalo Wild Wings. Franchisees are taking sides in an ugly investor fight. The brand reported three quarters of negative same-store sales in 2016 (they’ve only had four total in the last 13 years). And, overall, with the rise of digital media—not to mention the influx of chicken wing joints in America—how many people are actually leaving the couch for sporting events anymore?
The recent numbers reflect this challenge. Q4 financials showed a 38 percent drop in net earnings, a same-store sales decline of 4 percent at company-owned restaurants, and a 3.9 percent drop at franchised units.
In 2016, Buffalo Wild Wings took steps to correct the downturn. The chain, which has 1,230 restaurants, introduced Fast Break Lunch (read all about it here), Half-Price Wing Tuesdays, and the Blazin’ Rewards loyalty program.
While these innovations are definitely a step forward, and the company is rightfully excited about the momentum it produced late in the year, what happens in March is a different story. This is when Buffalo Wild Wings shines. The brand knows it. The industry knows it. The key, though, is does the consumer know it? Buffalo Wild Wings is banking on that answer being a resounding “yes,” and it went to admirably impressive lengths to make sure that’s the case.
The “Official Hangout for NCAA March Madness,” Buffalo Wild Wings is embracing all mediums this year—social media, TV, digital channels, in-restaurant activations, and even on-site Final Four experiences.
“For years, fans have pointed a finger at Buffalo Wild Wings on social media when an unexplained event happens, a game goes into overtime or they want us to intervene in the outcome,” says Bob Ruhland, vice president of marketing for Buffalo Wild Wings, in a release. “This year, we wanted to continue to extend this popular idea that Buffalo Wild Wings can make games more exciting and if our fans want something to happen—from rallying their team from a deficit to leveling the playing field—we would find a way to make that a reality.”
Buffalo Wild Wings “We Do It For You” advertising campaign aims to let fans know that it can make the experience exciting, anywhere. In spots running on CBS, CBS Sports Network, TruTV, TNT, and TBS, the “Number 7” commercial will show two guests being shocked when they realize they have the ability to remove a player from the game, made possible by a Buffalo Wild Wings server. The “Rally Beard” segment shows that staff can magically help you grow a beard to bring your team back when it’s needed the most. Lastly, when a game heads into overtime, Buffalo Wild Wings will air a commercial—“Overtime Time”—that encourages “fans to enjoy the five extra minutes of free basketball and not question who or what might have caused it.”
But here’s where Buffalo Wild Wings is embracing the changing guard of media. In what it’s calling “Tools of Distraction,” the brand is using Facebook and Twitter to share videos and GIFs that fans can deploy against opponents. This includes a “Rally Beard,” a “Free Throw Gone, an inflatable “Tube Fan,” and bouncing “Blazin’ Bill” cutout heads.
In addition, Buffalo Wild Wings is creating Instagram stories to show guests how to use these tools to affect games by tapping through the playbook tutorial.
There’s also a new hashtag—#HitTheButton—and Buffalo Wild Wings will scroll the top tweets from users in real-time on its website.
In-store, Buffalo Wild Wings is harnessing Snapchat with a March Madness-themed filter to gives guests a chance to spotlight game-changing moments. It is also giving away actual Rally Beards starting with the Sweet Sixteen games.
The final outlet will take place at the Buffalo Wild Wings Sports Lounge within Final Four Fan Fest. There facial mapping technology will digitally display rally beards and a Rally Beard Photo Op station will let fans choose the color of their favorite team and share it on social media. The Sports Lounge, fit with multiple TVs, a Blazin’ Challenge wing eating contest, and Pop-a-Shot free-throw games, will be live as well.
Clearly, this is a time for Buffalo Wild Wings to open the gates to new and loyal customers. If anything, it’s a welcome and opportunistic distraction from what promises to be a challenging 2017. Recently, a group representing franchisees announced its support for company managers against an activist investor with plans to shake up the chain. Marcato Capital Management, which owns a shade over 5 percent of the company, wants Buffalo Wild Wings to increase franchisees and overhaul its board. Currently, there are 631 corporate-owned locations.