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Jack in the Box brand chief: an extra helping of empathy equals sales success

Virtual events like 'text your ex day' are moments to connect on a human level, per Jack in the Box.

As sales surge, brand leader Adrienne Ingoldt explains how Jack in the Box strives 'to create a sense of community that has been lost during shelter at home.'

Last Thursday, popular fast-food chain Jack in the Box launched ‘National Text Your Ex for Jack Day.’ To promote its Spicy Chicken Strips, people were encouraged to text their ex-lovers, tag it and screenshot it in order to get a $50 gift card. The famous exes from MTV’s “The Challenge,” Cory Wharton and Cheyenne Floyd, were tapped to promote on Instagram.

In isolation, this is a fairly textbook publicity stunt. But when viewed in the larger context of the Jack in the Box marketing strategy, it offers a clear glimpse into why the chain was able to achieve 6.6% growth in same-store sales last quarter and why it’s bullish about the next quarter as well.

At the core of the stunt is the feeling of comfort amid the pandemic, whether it's reconnecting with an old flame or eating comfort food. It’s also a fun acknowledgement that dating is pretty rough right now.

Fun is very much on brand for Jack in the Box, as is leaning heavily into social media. In fact, the chain shifted a great deal of its $3.9m Q3 marketing spend into social (TikTok, Instagram, influencer, etc.), streaming content and eGaming (Twitch).

Its ad spend has remained on par with last year and it will continue to invest, albeit in non-traditional ways. “We made the choice early in the pandemic not to pull our foot off of the gas,” says Adrienne Ingoldt, svp, chief brand and experience officer at Jack in the Box. This spend is dictated by “listening to consumers. What do they need? Whether it’s a product like bringing back a fan favorite or it's an experience or a connection moment or it’s an entertainment moment—we look to solve for human needs. That’s how Jack’s going to continue to succeed.”

Variety, value and open doors proved pivotal

Looking back, it appears the 2,200-location West Coast chain made some smart decisions in the early pandemic days. Most notably, it stayed open 24/7 and opted not to shrink its vast menu despite supply chain constraints. What’s more, it actually rolled out new menu items and continues to do so “giving consumers something new to try, a little bit of excitement in this world that’s sort of mundane and formulaic,” says Ingoldt.

Jack in the Box also benefits from the fact that 90% of its sales were take out, even before the pandemic, and that its popular products like tiny tacos and popcorn chicken are easily portable. This, combined with inexpensive price points (double the chicken for $2 more, etc), makes for an easy upsell which creates bigger check sizes. “We really leveraged the strengths and differentiators of our business,” she says.

Of course, part of the trick is making sure everyone knows about these differentiators. That’s why, in Match, the first course of action was producing new commercials that simply touted the fact they were open. They ran 100% share of voice across all of its video placements, and blanketed social media, for two weeks and then slowly rolled the message back. New product offers took over from there. Though, “we make sure to continue hitting on the message that we are open for contactless, safe ways of getting food, whether its delivery or through the mobile app to order ahead.” Currently, delivery and mobile app sales remain approximately double what they were before the pandemic, per the company.

This continued emphasis on safety is important considering only 22% of Americans “feel fine” when dining, 42% are avoiding dining out altogether, and the rest feel uncomfortable when they do, per recent Dentsu Covid-19 Recovery Navigator research. “Then consider the fact that 53% of people say they will take a ‘wait and see’ approach to ensure that a new vaccine is safe,” says Jeff Tan, innovation solutions officer at Dentsu Aegis Network, which is media agency of record for Jack in the Box. “We are going to see a much longer road to recovery than many anticipated. That’s why it is important for Jack in the Box, and other brands, to create exercises where you are empathizing with consumers, talking to them and designing solutions that solve their needs. It no coincidence that the brands that do this are succeeding.”

Communicating through community

Jack in the Box had been no stranger to social media and eGaming. When traditional channels became less of an option, it was able to quickly “double down,” says Ingoldt. But this increased emphasis isn’t just about spend, it is about engaging with consumers, authentically.

An early success was the Jack in the Box virtual prom which gave students a chance to celebrate together. Other virtual events like “Text your ex day,” are an opportunity to connect, says Ingoldt. “There is a need for human connection and sense of community that has been lost in the shelter at home. Many of our customers are alone or with friends and not family, so we are thinking about the emotional side of that and what they are lacking. There is a real opportunity to provide a sense of community for them.”

The gaming community, in particular, is a significant focus for the brand. It has an extensive partnership with Twitch and is sponsor of The Dallas Fuel, which is part of the Overwatch League. It regularly creates custom content, contests and has partnered with top Twitch streamers to provide special offers. “When you’re gaming for 12 hours, you get hungry,” says Ingoldt. Activations include the well-received animated content series “Fuel House,” which was created by David&Goliath.

That’s not say the chain is ignoring professional sports—only the way it is leveraging its partnerships has changed considerably. It renegotiated many of contracts to reflect the new reality of live sports. For example, during NBA games, virtual signage is viewable on the floor of the court as teams run back and forth. And, its Jack head emoji was on outfield walls during the most-watch San Diego Padres opening day in history. “We were first to market in these negotiations, so we beat the competition to find the space,” she says. “It really unlocked some thinking about how to partner with sports in ways we wouldn’t have thought of if COVID-19 hadn’t have happened.”

No matter what the situation, Ingoldt says, “we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We really revel in the authenticity of who we are. We know folks come to us for that.” Given its latest earnings, Jack in the Box indeed appears to be a place people want to be.

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