And the road map was pretty clear—start paying attention to what consumers engage with—what they talk about. The content they’re creating about Chili’s, Doty says. The online communities the brand gets attention in already.
“That was really the birthplace of many ideas where we said, ‘this is how guests want Chili’s to show up and it’s authentic to who we are,” she says. “We’re being ourselves when we do this.”
With social, Doty says restaurants, at some point, need to decide if they want to be cool, or if they want to be useful. That’s a trap many legacy chains fall into. Appealing to a generation that’s not listening. Chili’s leans the second point, although Doty says the brand “is a little bit cool as your dad’s cool,” and that’s OK by them.
“Our most important thing we focus on regarding how we show up in those channels is authenticity and usefulness,” she says. “So, we don’t want to be in places or force ourselves into places or conversations where, frankly, there’s no place for Chili’s. Why are you here? Even if it’s big and it’s taking off and our competitors are showing up in it, if it’s not authentic to us and useful to our guests that’s not a place for us.”
Some recent examples: Chili's My House Starter Packs, complete with baby back ribs scented candles; $25 Halloween costumes, boxers included; and a Chili-fied school bus. The brand also recently got on TikTok for the first time to celebrate turning 45.
Part of Chili’s surge in recent months stemmed from personalization tactics. The company has shifted a lot of marketing energy into ensuring it delivers a message that speaks to a specific guest, delivered in a time and place that makes sense. That could include social targeting. It could be SMS text.
Mainly, though, Chili’s CRM and loyalty programs have redefined its business at a broad, and quickly moving, scale.
The brand today has six million people in its rewards program. And that’s engaged names—people who have interacted with Chili’s in the last 180 days. Doty says there is a sizable number of guests in the database who haven’t and possibly could in the future.
With this active pool, though, Chili’s sees about twice the level of frequency compared to regular guests.
Back in spring 2018, the chain exited American Express Co.’s Plenti Rewards program. It was a points-based setup that proved too complex, the company said at the time.
Chili’s moved away from an in-house program in favor of the coalition-based Plenti loyalty platform in 2016. American Express launched its multi-tier retailer platform in May 2015 with a host of partners, including AT&T, Nationwide, and Hulu. Macy’s also left when Chili’s did. Plenti offered one point for each dollar spent at participating retailers and restaurants, allowing members to redeem for savings or through an online marketplace that included partners like WalMart and Office Depot.
Plenti users grabbed points on eligible purchases at participating restaurants to a certain date.
Today’s version—My Chili’s Rewards—started testing in August 2017. Arguably the most important fix was that customers now get a free perk immediately for signing up. Right from the outset, nearly half of the guests opted for free chips and salsa. The other chose a free non-alcoholic beverage.
If diners come every 60 days, they get free chips or drinks again. “It’s a lot more transparent for them to get something,” Doty says.