How Grill'd is shoring up its brand position to survive the COVID-19 crisis

Founder and MD talks to CMO about the latest owned delivery service and channel innovations, loyalty and marketing strategies helping the QSR brand get through the disruption

Simon Crowe
Simon Crowe

Grill’d’s managing director says the fast-tracked launch of its branded delivery service is another necessary innovation effort to survive through the COVID-19 crisis and set itself up in a position of strength for recovery.  

The new Grill’d Delivery service is powered by DoorDash’s white-label technology, DoorDash Drive, and debuted in April across 50 restaurants across NSW and Victoria. The service is expected to be available nationally by year-end. Grill’d is the first Australian brand to use the white-label platform and will have on-demand access to DoorDash’s driver fleet.

Customers access the service via the brand’s website or mobile app and will be rewarded for purchases and engagement through its customer loyalty program, Relish.

Grill’d founder and managing director, Simon Crowe, told CMO the QSR is first and foremost committed its experiential dine-in experience, which contributes 70 per cent of total group revenues.

“That’s the beacon of what we drive towards because it includes sounds, smells, ambience, music and energy that experientially make our brand,” he said. “That’s what we want people to think of when they choose to dine with us even on a convenience basis, whether that be takeaway or delivery.  

“We also know consumers are looking for a very convenient option, so we need to play to that piece. Takeaway and delivery are fundamental to achieving that.”  

And it was a necessary invention given the 70 per cent of Grill’d revenue generated by dine-in were suspended thanks to COVID-19 restrictions imposed in March. Crowe said the key is brand and customer experience management. He noted the company was “deliberately slow” to the aggregator market as services such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo were established in Australia.

“We saw people go to delivery thinking it was the panacea to significant growth. But they were mistaken as the profitability is questionable at best,” Crowe said. “We knew if we cannibalised for existing takeaway business for delivery, it’s a disservice to our business.”

Grill’d eventually partnered with Uber, but a lack of visibility around how the brand is performing, how customers behave and their motivations for choosing the brand versus other offers via the service was restrictive.

“We felt we were becoming beholden to the platform when in fact we knew our brand was sought out as one of the highest destination brands on the platform,” Crowe said.  

In addition, Crowe said Grill’d’s customer feedback loop and Net Promoter Score (NPS) program showed delivery customers were less impressed with the brand and experience than dine-in guests.

The owned delivery service also gives Grill’d a full connection with the customer, allows it to provide restaurant prices, and recognises loyalty via its Relish membership program.

Importantly, it also addresses a key customer friction point around delivery driver ‘batching’ occurring via third-party platforms. Crowe said Grill’d has a contract ensuring food goes straight from its restaurant to a consumer, ensuring product quality. Today, delivery represents 40 per cent of business, when it had been less than 10 per cent before COVID-19.

Loyalty and marketing strategy

While offering great customer service and product is Grilld’s guiding philosophy, Crowe agreed the loyalty program has been an important tool as the business has migrated from small to large player. In 18 months, Grill’d has built up a loyalty base of 500,000 active and frequent spenders.

“We are trying to make sure we always remain grounded in local, so we’re using our size to communicate better and more effectively to either frequent or infrequent users,” he said. “Relish is fundamental to this, and aligns to the purpose of our business.”

For example, one element of the program is ‘Eight and donate’, allowing those who buy eight burgers to donate one for free to those on the streets. “This links back to us being legitimately local, and is attached to our philosophy of contributing to our local communities,” Crowe said.  

But the program has also been a vital communications tool to engage guests in the disruptive COVID-19 environment. In the first stages as restrictions hit, it was a useful mechanism to tell guests Grill’d remained open while many restaurants shuttered their doors. Crowe said Grill’d used the program to ensure customers are aware 70 per cent of stores are no longer open for dine-in experiences, and to promote takeaway and now owned delivery services.

“We were about to do an ABL test not only to members but the broader society, but with 70 per cent of the business gone, and only a smaller part left we’re growing, we put a hold on that,” Crowe continued.

The marketing strategy is now about trying to engage significantly with customers. “We have never been a discount brand. But we know we have opportunity to be a little more tactical than we normally would and use prices and value to incentivise people to try us,” he explained.

“Relish talks to existing customers, and we want to use third-party platform orders to bring new people to use. It’s harder to do with no dine-in available, but we are looking to employ these tactics now. If we build delivery and takeaway by threefold, and then have dine-in business available to them once COVID-19 passes, we can come out of this strongly.”

With its Grill’d for Good program, meanwhile, Crowe said it’s seeking out more culturally specific campaigns and activities during this COVID-19 time.

“We moved from more rational thinking to what will now be more playful and topical given all of us are starting to get stir crazy being locked into four walls,” he said. “For example, want to respond to what’s happening in society, with some programs which are meant to be more entertaining and fun during these times, but also that play to the purpose of our brand.

“We know our success is dependent on local community around us. For us to be integrated in that community has been fundamental since our beginning. It’s real and genuine and the fabric of the business.”

Fighting for survival

Alongside this, keeping as many people employed as possible to serve as many communities as possible has been critical to Grill’d business survival in the COVID-19 crisis, Crowe said.

“This is about giving us a springboard when COVID-19 dissipates and can go back into restaurants. Want to turn that dial as quickly as we can when that happens,” he said.

“Experience comes in all forms – there’s no doubt we’re trying to use Grill’d Delivery to improve the experience to delivery. But we also crave for reopening of dine-in. We’ve seen the attraction of our brand – we’ve more than doubled existing takeaway and delivery business since COVID-19, which pleasingly shows the love and appeal of Grill’d as people are still seeking us out.

“We look forward to relaunching dine-in but in a complementary fashion, knowing delivery is a key permanent part of our future. If we can at least have you thinking about us in the home, it bodes well for our brand in the long-term.”  

In fact, Crowe said COVID-19 has massively accelerated Grill’d development into a channel-based business. It now has 10 channels, some owned, some third-party, and a matrix operating model.

“That’s a permanent change as a result of COVID-19 and will make our business a lot better,” Crowe said. “We have translated these channels into steps of service and customer philosophy and practice and that will be a permanent change that comes from this crisis. So we have a customer proposition for each of the channels and potentially a marketing/promotional plan for each of them long-term.”

Crowe believed coming out of this crisis, people will look to familiar brands, and those inspiring confidence and trust.

“Post-GFC in the US, there was a drive towards things that reminded them of childhood and the innocence and freedom that came with that. We are excited about exploring that as COVID-19 eventually dies down,” he said.

But to get there, Crowe urged consumers to support hospitality brands in as many ways as they can.

“We’re now in an unprofitable scenario like everyone in hospitality. Without government and bank support, we would be likely to fail. It would be true for almost everyone in hospitality,” he commented.

“I’m really worried for the industry - not just for small players but big players. I think it might be a higher percentage remaining shuttered than people realise. We’re putting everything we can into play to come out strongly and come through this.”

At Grill’d, executives have taken a 40 per cent pay cut, and 120 support staff are now working at 60 per cent capacity for 60 per cent of salary.  It has however, guaranteed 100 per cent of the salaries of its restaurant managers for April and May, a testament to their critical role in connecting the brand to local communities, Crowe said.

“We are a decentralised, experiential business and we realise the other thing that counts is our people If we get that right, we don’t have to worry so much about customers and guests, because they will welcome us into their home,” he said.

The challenge, as Crowe put it, is how to survive before you can thrive.

“Marketing plays a big role in that but there has been a lot of other factors we’ve had to deal with,” he said. “We’re at a point now where we can focus on growth. This was a health crisis, and pleasingly it feels health part is dialling down. But the economic crisis is dialling up.

“With hospitality in general, I don’t think people appreciate how vulnerable it is. I’m extraordinarily confident we will get through this and be stronger on the other side. But it’s not just up to the government, it’s up to us as a society to get behind a truckload of small businesses when they do try to reopen doors.

“These businesses will only have one or two months before they either stay in a position of viability or go under. When so many will be cautious about going out, we’ve got to drive consumers to come to them quickly. If it’s slow, it’ll be too late. My only want for our society is to put away fear and get back out there, engage and socialise safely.”  

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