One of the trials of being first to market—or at least in the conversation—is maintaining a challenger approach when you’re no longer the innovator. When Sizzler was founded in 1958 by Del and Helen Johnson in Culver City, California, a steak dinner cost 99 cents. The accessibility, affordability, and nature of Sizzler’s service—the brand was first known as “Del’s Sizzler Family Steak House”—became a roadmap for many casual competitors.
Sizzler’s unit count climbed over 700 worldwide. But it’s been a slope since. The brand declared bankruptcy in June 1996, closing north of 130 units and terminating some 4,600 workers as part of proceedings. That left Sizzler with 85 company-run restaurants and 235 franchises. COVID-19 setbacks (40 percent of Sizzler’s sales came from its salad bar) brought it to Chapter 11 again in September 2020. These proceedings concerned Sizzler’s 14 corporate units—not its over 90 franchised locations.
Today, according to its website, Sizzler operates 73 stateside restaurants and 11 in Puerto Rico. And it’s plotting a reintroduction of sorts.
In November, Sizzler U.S. appointed Journey Further as its agency of record, tasking the company with modernizing and improving its media performance “and propelling brand salience as the chain looks to shake up the industry.”
Journey Further is a U.K.-based agency that recently expanded into the U.S. It’s worked with global brands like Claire’s, Casio, and Dr. Martens.
Duncan Smith, Journey Further’s U.S. CEO, first came across Sizzler more than two decades ago. He was traveling around Asia (as many U.K. people do when they graduate college) and stopped at an Indonesia location. The message wasn’t hard to grasp. This was a big, bold, American steakhouse brand—a category that’s stuffed to the edges since. To the earlier point, what helped Sizzler define a category 65 years ago has become background noise. “Now, there’s renewed focused to bring the brand back up to the modern world, across the board,” Duncan says.
One of the first things Smith and Journey Further did was reset the stakes. They wanted to hold Sizzler’s communications accountable. Another common tick of legacy brands is to carry tired habits when it comes to reaching potential customers. For Sizzler, this was a dive that began by looking at the markets the brand operated in.
Its restaurants today are generally in diverse neighborhoods that, simply, look nothing like they did when the stores were built. “And so, the world has moved on around—literally—the locations in which you find a Sizzler,” Duncan says.
The demographics are more multi-cultural and, often, younger. From a media point of view, the channels Sizzler wanted to advertise in, the messages it was putting out to audiences, hadn’t progressed at the same pace as its communities; the appetites and interests of consumers changed.
So before anything, Duncan says, Journey Further wanted Sizzler to bring its media and how it connects with consumers up to speed using channels that are defined—to “make sure we’re talking to audiences in a much more deliberate way; that we understand what that population looks like in and around a Sizzler, and how we can drive more traffic and engagement with the brand,” he says.
One key distinction is Journey Further isn’t touching what Sizzler wants to say (that’s a different bucket, led by a different agency) but instead focusing on where the brand wants to say it, how, what time of day, the kind of media, and so forth. “That’s job No. 1 for us,” Duncan says. “How do we use their marketing spend in a more effective way to get the message of the brand across to people who are then going to want to engage and go to the stores and get that experience.”
This rebirth of Sizzler, led by president Chris Perkins, who stepped into the position in January 2020, will unfold in stages. It’s a shift that’s been in the works. CEO Kerry Kramp left the organization in May 2019 after 11 years as part of a broader overhaul. Dennis Scott, chief strategic officer, Khaled Bagul, vice president, risk management, leadership development, people support, and culture; Steve McDermott, SVP, finance and analysis; and Tamra Scroggins, director food culture/corporate chef, departed as well.
When Kramp exited, Kevin Perkins, a controlling owner and chairman of Sizzler USA, initially stepped in. He was originally part of a 2011 management-led deal, along with Kramp and Jim Collins, to acquire the brand from Australia’s Pacific Equity Partners. Kevin Perkins was named non-executive chairman after the purchase and Kramp continued his CEO duties. Pacific owned Sizzler since 2005 and didn’t include the international operations in the agreement.
Kevin Perkins provided Sizzler more recently with a $2 million loan to help it get through the latest bankruptcy process.
Duncan says there’s more to come on what this will look like and how Sizzler plans to reestablish its positioning, but he can share some of the broader aims. If you look around parts of the sector, he notes, a lot of older casual chains are leaning on broadcast TV, posters, radio, and other classic channels. That’s where Sizzler has historically spent as well. “But we live in a much more addressable world now,” Duncan says. “We can start to target their audiences in a one-to-one basis. We can use addressability to push streaming video and that kind of stuff into those places.”
Spun differently, Sizzler will adopt a multi-cultural approach to marketing and a more effective local plan to engage with customers where they want to be engaged with. The DNA of Sizzler will endure, Duncan adds. The family-focused approach and occasion of the brand isn’t going anywhere. But it will shift to attract a new generation. Can Sizzler go from memory bank—“our parent’s took us here when we were kids” to action—“and now I’ll take my kids here, too.”
“That’s where we can do a really good job now; to build this connection back up with an audience that really is questing whether Sizzler’s doors are even open at this point after the pandemic,” Duncan says. “And then, there’s a lot more to come in terms of what do they want to say, how do they put a stake in the ground after they reestablish the connection.”
Broadly, Duncan believes restaurants have whitespace to reach guests. There needs to be a better closed loop. Technology and the digital adoption uncovered by COVID accelerated potential. Restaurants, especially around casual dining, struggled pre-2020 with click-and-collect data. Now, there’s a massive influx thanks to omnichannel ordering.
So what a brand can do when it comes to tailoring offers to individuals balooned. “Digital media can tailor so much more toward you,” Duncan says. “Email messaging. Any kind of use of their CRM to engage in a way that says you ordered this last time, we’ve got an offer on this, you’re able to anticipate really when people are going to want to connect with you and then you capitalize on that moment.”
“And I think that’s what restaurants need to do a lot more of,” he adds. “They know when their traffic spikes. You can just use search terms to understand when the interest in your particular restaurant or the particular dishes that you sell is more prevalent. In the U.K., Friday evenings is always about Indian food. There are certain sort of seasonality and trends that happen that I think Sizzler and other restaurants can be taking more advantage of and a lot of that is through way more than just social media.”
An example from across the segment world is Wendy’s. The brand’s provocative Twitter account keeps the burger chain top-of-mind and in the debate around cultural events, timely activations, and wherever else Wendy’s wants to dip. Yet at the same time, Wendy’s will mix in deals and typical communications alongside buzz. Burger King has majored in this two-track communication for some time as well. Gimmicks and headline grabbers (think Whopper Detour) are surrounded by how the brand plans to drive sales, such as daily deals.
Essentially, brands, legacy and otherwise, can’t just pour marketing dollars into the top of the funnel anymore. There are different layers of communication to create the user-connected world that inspires repeat visits.
But again, in Sizzler’s case, it’s built on accountability. Duncan says their agency leads with performance marketing, which is something digital has unlocked across the lexicon. Previously, companies focused on converting people into a brand. Were they clicking? Did the product rank where it needed to on search? “I think that’s a little short-sighted around what media and advertising can do today,” Duncan says, “because you’re getting all of this content streamed into to you from your different devices—your big TV on the wall or your cell phone. You’ve got a much more accountable way of connecting with people where there’s a return part.”
Where it’s changed: media dollars can be applied at the top of the funnel to build brands, not just convert people into the business. Bringing brands and performance together is where Sizzler wants to be, Duncan says.
“How do you build the strongest brand possible, as accountably as possible? You know who you’re talking to, you know the value those customers can deliver to you, and the value you can deliver to them as well,” he says. “Now, you’re constantly optimizing the same way you used to be able to do with your dynamic creative at the bottom of the funnel across everything you’re talking about.”
It’s what Sizzler will lead with. “How can we be the highest-performing brand in the sector because we know more about our customers, more about how our data is being used, and we’re squeezing more value out of every single dollar we’re putting in,” Duncan says. “It’s back to that conversation to how you use media to be smarter than your competition as opposed to just out-shouting them.”