Bringing back the Max Brenner brand

We talk to the recently installed marketing lead for this iconic QSR brand to find out how digital, experiential activities and product innovation are helping prepare the brand for growth as we recover from COVID-19

Max Brenner's Bad Boy Brownie Decadent pizza
Max Brenner's Bad Boy Brownie Decadent pizza

An online shop, mobile app, fresh take on customer loyalty and new product ranging are just some of the steps Max Brenner’s local marketing chief says it’s taking to prepare the once-embattled brand as Australia recovers from COVID-19.

Max Brenner Australian marketing manager, Avril-Summer Cusack, told CMO since joining the chocolate retailer last August, the emphasis has been on getting the foundational pieces right in order to help rebuild the brand.

An icon of Australian QSR brands, Max Brenner hit troubled waters and entered administration in 2018. It was then snapped up by a private owner in late 2018, who has been working to get the broken business back on track.

Among the many attractions of the role for Cusack was this opportunity to rebuild an iconic brand. She also noted the pivotal role marketing is playing in this transformation, with strategic plans taking advantage of her experience working for the likes of The Cheesecake Shop, Soul Origin, Healthy Life and FoodCo (former parent company of Muffin Break).

“I’m big on brands I can be passionate about, and those that make people happy and bring joy,” Cusack said. “The other thing is Max Brenner’s brand awareness, which is outstanding. As a group, the brand has spent very little on advertising, yet has built up this significant brand awareness through PR and making marketing noise. I’m fascinated by that, and want to understand how a brand that has under 50 stores gets that kind of awareness.

“It’s also an exciting opportunity to build a broken brand.”  

Prioritising digital

Among the first priorities for Cusack was getting a Christmas campaign in order, work that not only included visual merchandising, but also an online shop that could fulfil gifting digitally.

“We have a website, which is all tied into the main one out of Canada brand and we’re still tied to that,” she explained, noting this has limited development and rebuilding. While that work progresses, launching an online shop in time for Christmas ordering enabled the local business to get product sales up during the busy festive season.

In addition, Max Brenner has opened two new chocolate bars in November and December in Queensland. Cusack noted the experiential nature of the retail shopfronts, which include a 100KG block of solid chocolate staff chip away at with a hammer. From a low of 19 stores, the group is now up to 21 locations and will shortly open in Broadmeadows, Victoria. It’s also refitted a number of sites, beginning with Southbank, Victoria.

While shop launches have slowed as a result of COVID-19, Cusack said the intention is to grow even faster as the country recovers from the crisis.

Meanwhile, Max Brenner’s latest initiative was debuting a mobile app on 19 May. As well as the ability to connect to a customer rewards program, the app provides a much-needed digital mechanism to execute and fulfil promotional campaigns and redeem customer offers. Cusack noted with Max Brenner’s 20th birthday coming up, the app would play an important role in driving engagement to mark the milestone.

“A mobile app is more seamless, trackable and measurable. However, during COVID, we changed tack to emphasise contact-free payments, the ability to browse our menu and providing the functionality to order,” she explained. “There’s the potential already there to do all the other rewards elements, but we led with contact-free buying and payments and rewards became secondary. It’s also a way for us to execute great promotions.”  

Max Brenner Australia’s mobile app was developed in partnership with Loke, and is integrated with the retailer’s point-of-sale and counter systems.

“Once the online shop was live and justified, we could invest more and build this up,” Cusack continued. “We have the fundamentals in place, and we’ve kept it simple. As we get more robust, we’ll then look at more customer building through the app, as it can be linked to our loyalty program.”  

ROI for Cusack in the shorter term includes building the member database and redeeming offers. She noted customers paying through the app will accrue points. They also gain $5 credit upon signing up.

“We’ll see what insights we gain from that, and what people are redeeming. The ultimate position is understanding what guests want and having an open connection with them,” she said.  

Cusack noted Max Brenner’s customer rewards program was scoped out before she joined the organisation. Given the COVID-19 environment and having less marketing noise to contend with, she was able to get it over the line. The brand has a loyalty card, and will work to replace that via the digital offer.

“However, I know from past experience there will always be a part of the customer base that won’t transition,” Cusack said.  

Max Brenner Australia’s current and prospective customer base is wide, encompassing everyone that loves chocolate. “That’s kids through to seniors, a fairly equal male/female split, with a slight skew towards mums,” she commented.

“It can vary, and consumption habits also vary. We see people come in for one lick, then leave, while others get our platters. Then there’s the afternoon kids, couples and families.”

Chocolate tasting

Arguably, where the most brand transformation is taking place is in new product development. “The big thing with Max Brenner is the experience. We have the chocolate coming through pipes, a snug atmosphere that’s cosy, graffiti artwork on the walls, and it’s all sensory,” Cusack said.

“That won’t change, but we need to evolve it, from digital sense and product development piece is key. Our waffles and hot chocolate will always be iconic, but the wider range is changing. For example, with Valentine’s Day, we found it was more a dine-in occasion this year than gifting. So we had the ‘duo’s dream’, where you lifted the plastic sleeve off the cake and the chocolate poured over the cake.”

This limited-edition product chalked up 2.2 million views and more than 55,000 likes via FoodBlog’s TikTok page.

With 21 owned and operated stores, as well as its own patisserie, Cusack said the brand has great resources to turn around change. It’s also used the COVID-19 shutdown time to give stores a deep clean, and build out training material for staff. This emphasis on building up capability came up early on in the COVID-19 crisis and as soon as it became clear customer footfall would be restricted.

“We wanted to ensure when everything starts up that we’re in a good position to hit the ground running,” Cusack said. “It’s been a whirlwind – we saw sales impacted from 16 March. By April, we were working on improving all these elements to be ready.”

Helping Max Brenner keep sales ticking over was the online shop. During easter, for example, the brand was able to largely recoup on products and campaigns already created for the season by moving stock through its digital platform.

The next steps for Cusack and the team include a winter campaign and new product development for the season.

“We’re going into one of the biggest seasonal periods for us. Our stores were built for winter and we’re keen on capturing on that. Final tastings are happening now, we hope to launch by middle of June,” she said.  

Other work, such as modernising gift cards by leveraging POS and counter technology, as well as established relationships with delivery aggregators and a fresh deal with Doordash, are further instruments for growth.

“There are lots of pieces to do still, but I feel like we’re steamrolling through,” Cusack said. She also believed seeing the changes and innovations generated good morale for the team.

“This will also help us as Australia starts to recover.”

 

 

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