How Inspire Brands breeds customer affinity

VP of Customer Personalization Ben Halliwell on embracing consumer preferences and delivering relevant communications
Susan Reda
VP, Education Strategy

Ben Halliwell’s LinkedIn profile discloses some of his specialties, including backflips, cartwheels and making paper airplanes. But don’t bother asking him if he prefers traditional wings over a picadillo taco or an Oreo chocolate shake with his Jimmy Cubano. He won’t tell you.

Inspire Brands Ben Halliwell

Halliwell, vice president of customer personalization at Inspire Brands, oversees a portfolio that includes more than 11,200 Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic, Jimmy John's and Rusty Taco locations worldwide — and he doesn’t play favorites.

What he does is work across the brands, building personalization solutions that enable each brand within Inspire’s portfolio. “All brands benefit from embracing consumer preferences and delivering relevant communications,” Halliwell says. “Effective personalization strategies breed customer affinity to brands.”

Ahead of his appearance at the NRF NXT ALL ACCESS virtual event, NRF spoke with Halliwell about a range of topics from surviving the pandemic to the change in customer analytics coming down the pike.

You oversee a diversified mix of brands. Do you typically focus on projects by brand or is there crossover?

A little bit of both. We try to build solutions that are portfolio-based, meaning even if I’m doing something that focuses on one brand, I’m building it in a way that would make it extensible for other brands.

It’s an agile way of working. There’s always a minimum viable product or a proof of concept where it’s possible to show the value that can be recognized with the minimal amount of effort.

NRF NXT All Access

Register here for the July 20-22, 2021 virtual event

So much change has come about for Inspire’s brands over the last few months. Can you share some of the changes to digital platforms?

I would say that digital change has been ubiquitous across Inspire, especially if we’re talking about the last three months. COVID-19, coupled with the social conversation we are all experiencing, have combined to create a shift in the way consumers interact with restaurants. We saw about three to four years of digital adoption trend occur within two to three weeks.

Let’s look at Buffalo Wild Wings. We recently consolidated the brand’s digital ecommerce experience with its digital loyalty platform. These used to exist as two separate verticals — we had an Android and iOS app for loyalty and an iOS and Android app for ecommerce. We also had two different websites for each.

We collapsed those together so we have a single Buffalo Wild Wings brand experience that is inclusive of both loyalty and the commerce. We basically turned a primary on-premise business into 100 percent off-premise business in a very short time period.

How did customers react?

It immediately created a benefit that wasn’t there before. A year ago, a Buffalo Wild Wings customer could not attach loyalty to their ecommerce transactions. Once we put those experiences together, the consumer experience improved.

And, we opened a channel which allows us to expand even further — whether that be contactless payment, ordering with own device inside our restaurants or interacting with content — all of which you might be able to do on your device in the future.

You head up personalization for Inspire Brands. How critical is it that each brand has a personalized point of view in place?

As a brand tailors its approach to individuals, it becomes a little bit more attuned to that person’s buying habits, buying frequencies, preferences, etc. Once we amass that information, personalization can be enabled.

My team works to identify and profile consumers and deliver the offers and messages that are most relevant to them. We have built a machine learning, AI-based platform that takes more than 900 attributes and matches them against the different offers and creative assets that are most likely to drive that consumer to make a purchase.

Will 2020 will change customer analytics going forward?

What I think it has done is sped up the need to have a greater understanding of consumer needs.

The overall trajectory of customer analytics has experienced exponential growth. We witnessed growth projections that were outlined for two, three and four years happen in two to three months. And I expect the rate of that growth to continue to grow exponentially from this point forward.

The need to understand who consumers are and what they want advanced in giant steps and it will continue to for some time. Digital adoption makes this process easier.

What’s on your plate for the next few months as stores reopen?

We must be prepared to roll back just as much as we have to be prepared to roll forward. That’s really what’s on everyone’s mind on the operations side.

We need to be agile enough to adapt to the ever-changing regulations and guidance that we’re getting from federal, state, municipality governments, and — as things shift and flare-ups occur — we have to be prepared to roll back openings.

The next 30 days are going to be very telling in terms of how well we have our arms around COVID-19. As an operator, a retailer or anyone that has bricks-and-mortar locations, we have no choice but to be agile. Nobody can really forecast this. The only thing we know is that we don’t know.

Looking back to March, can you share something good that has come out of this?

Years back, I had a front-row seat to watch retail embrace digital. Still, what I have seen take place within the entire restaurant industry over the last 12 weeks has been nothing short of extraordinary.

I’m talking about two or three years’ worth of exponential change, and it’s here to stay. It has been both exhausting and exhilarating. As time goes by, I’ll likely forget about the long days and nights but will still remember how exciting it was to be there in that moment.

Hear more from Halliwell at NRF NXT ALL ACCESS, July 20-22, where he’ll talk about reliance on first-party data, privacy controls and best practices for data privacy.

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