CMO profile: How this marketer is shaking up Australia's biggest bubble tea maker

Chatime's chief marketing officer, Joanna Robinson, on brand building, leadership empathy and winning over a franchise network

Joanna Robinson
Joanna Robinson

It’s the psychology of getting people to fall in love with a brand that drives Chatime’s chief marketing officer, Joanna Robinson. And having built her career foundations in FMCG marketing, she has plenty of experience to bring to the task at the bubble tea maker.

“What excites me about this brand is the Chatime loyalists – there is something magical about it that creates these obsessive followers. My job is to understand that better and sprinkle that magic wider,” Robinson tells CMO. “I’ve had to work in the past to get emotional connections to toothpaste and washing detergent. To have a product people are already emotionally attached here is phenomenal.”

Robinson’s remit upon joining Chatime just over 12 months ago was to shake things up. Boasting of a distinct background to traditional QSR, it was clear from the outset she had permission to take a different approach. But with a managing director who’s a 25 per cent investor, plus 140 small business owners across the network, it was equally clear Robinson needed to win over many stakeholders if she was going to realise it.

“I’ve had to learn about how you engage with a wide array of people and take them on the journey,” Robinson says. “That comes down to how you articulate it. I’m used to FMCG speak, which is a lot of high-level strategy and marketing shorthand. In this role, it’s trying to articulate to our stakeholders what are we doing that’s going to help them make money.

“I’ve always focused on taking an empathetic view with my team, but this has required me to also take that approach to our external network. That’s been at a time when many of these businesses have gone into lockdowns, affecting their ability to provide for their families. It’s been a good learning curve for me, and one that’s helped me to see things from other people’s perspectives.”

Empowered leadership

Robinson kicked off her marketing career with Procter & Gamble, before switching to Johnson & Johnson then Unilever. After a start in Australia, she relocated to the Middle East, overseeing marketing across the region for brands such as Rexona, Omo, Sunlight, Domestos and Signal Oral Care. The led into marketing roles across Estee Lauder and Tom Ford, before returning to Australia and working at Tyrell’s Wine, followed by L’Occitane.

In more recent years, Robinson has been a sessional lecturer on marketing at the University of NSW as well as University of Sydney. This desire to help others fulfil their potential has given Robinson a strong commitment to team empowerment and empathetic leadership.

“I’m a bit of a mother hen in that I take managing and leading very seriously. For me, you manage holistically, not just in terms of what people do for you,” Robinson comments. “You manage who they are as people, what their aspirations are, what they have going on in the lives, from sick parents to kids. Without injecting yourself in their lives, you have to know what’s going on to empathise and manage in a holistic way.”

Robinson has also learnt the hard way that our behaviour in the corporate world can directly impact the journey of many other people. Over her career, she’s had direct experience of difficult and potentially destructive working environments that provided valuable lessons in what’s needed to build a constructive culture.

Joanna RobinsonCredit: Chatime
Joanna Robinson

“I feel like the universe put me in those difficult roles to drive change. Once someone speaks up, it enables others to do so,” she says. “Those experiences happened at the right time in my life, as I spoke up more, and I was in more senior roles. There was space and a forum for me to express my opinion and support other people to do the same.

“I’m also very pro women’s empowerment and trying to help young women break the glass ceiling, nurturing them and their careers. As the only woman on the Chatime executive team, I want to empower this change from the front.”

It’s for all these reasons Robinson identifies culture as a big priority in 2022. She also notes Chatime is in a massive growth phase but still boasts of a startup mentality.

“That’s great as it means we can be agile. However, we haven’t focused on culture as much as we should. My focus as an executive is how together can we focus on metrics to put people at the heart of what we do. That’s about how to attract and retain the right talent. And we’re getting better. In 2021 for example, we introduced flexible working. A lot has come on with Covid, but it’s important to offer work/life balance.”

Brand building and extension

Then there’s the brand priorities. As a marketing chief, Robinson says brand building is the biggest change of strategy she’s implementing at Chatime. To help, she went to market to find a creative agency that could assist with this brand equity quest, appointing Special Group.  

“We resonate strongly with a very loyal audience, but what we have been doing most times with a campaign is shifting people around the portfolio rather than attracting a new audience. We’re not really growing the brand,” Robinson explains. “I have been encouraging the business that this is the time to invest in brand building and equity, driving via more above-the-line advertising to find new customers and foster greater loyalist engagement.

“The scary thing about it is it’s a huge amount of money and we probably won’t see the full return on in the first year. However, we do have a strong five-year plan and the brand building elements and investment plays into that.”

Robinson again points to stakeholder management and taking Chatime’s leadership team on that journey first.

“I have said to our exec team that sometimes moving into brand building arena with huge investments and disruptive creative can be uncomfortable. But what’s also clear is none of are on the exec team are our target audience. We have an 86 per cent female target, 14–29-year-olds. A lot of the challenges come from having a subjective point of view – it’s not necessarily the opinion of our target customers.” 

The first fruits of the creative agency partnership will go live in February, when Chatime launches a new out-of-home, augmented reality campaign called ‘Satisfy your strange’. This will enable consumers to scan a code and go directly into an immersive digital experience complete with commissioned interactive digital characters. The aim of the game is to engage and drive consumers into Chatime stores.

Another key element of brand extension has been launching a range of DIY fruit and bubble tea kits into Woolworths in November 2021. Chatime is also in talks with other retailers and channels and planning the next round of Woolworths product offerings in May 2022. Robinson admits the third-party retail play made franchisees nervous but was a deliberate step in extending brand awareness.

“Woolworths has enabled us to get our brand top of mind with a new audience. It was no coincidence the week we launched our breweries had one of their biggest sales weeks,” she continues. “It drove people into our stores and proved to be another purchase occasion. It’ll never replace the real thing, it’s an add on purchase to the repertoire.

“We use Google Analytics to help understand interest in the brand and that’s showing every time we do something above the line, there is a peak in people searching for our brand. These are the figures that reassure our stakeholders, starting with the exec team. It’s been really useful to do this too as a marketer, because I’ve had to think of things from the franchise partner’s point of view, not the marketer’s point of view.”

In addition, Chatime has shifted to an always-on digital strategy with Wired Digital, which also looks after social media community management.

Consumer insights

Underpinning these programs is work done with Retail Doctor Group on what Chatime calls ‘limbic’, or psychometric profiling. This identified Chatime’s target customer has both hedonistic and open-minded traits.

“Our target consumer is self-indulgent, leads from the front and likes to influence their friends. When we launched our gamification platform last year, allowing people to design their own drinks, give it a name, then put it on social media, it broke our website on first day,” Robinson says. “In the end, we had 15,000 people uploading drinks and sharing it with their friends.

“We are very data rich for a small company, and we do a lot of data analysis and using first-party data from our loyalty program to get into the headspace of what makes our target consumers tick.”

A huge contributor to Chatime’s customer success has been its four-and-a-half-year-old, app-based loyalty program. In the last year, membership has grown from 700,000 to 1.1 million people, earning the brand a QSR Award for Best Loyalty Program. 

“Any loyalty program is like social – you do need to grow, but it’s not necessarily how many people you have, it’s about engagement,” Robinson says. “It is about having authentic relationships and ensuring the engagement levels are there across all of our touchpoints.”

In this vein, Chatime is utilising Customology for its EDM platform work and to help with segmentation based on behavioural attributes, what products to promote to cohorts and for trigger campaigns, setting up customer pathways and runways based on how engaged members are in the loyalty platform.

“We get better and better at the interception points to drive lapsed users back into the cycle,” Robinson adds.

In 2022, Chatime is recruiting four new roles to further support its massive growth trajectory and personalisation efforts. These include a new ecommerce and CRM specialist to help launch an ecommerce platform this year and take the QSR’s CRM program to the next level. It’s also brought on a head of digital systems to join the leadership team, with a remit of connecting back-end and front-end technology.

“Our app when it launched was great, but things have come on so much. The more we can create superior experiences from a digital perspective, the better, and the more competitive edge we have,” Robinson says. “We’re looking at things like geotargeting via the app as the consumer walks past one of our breweries, showing them what they ordered last time via the app and showing them a new launch that might suit their tastes.”

Outside of digital, Robinson is actively pursuing a merchandising play, debuting Chatime-branded hoodies, socks, laptop cases and more. Again, it’s a strategy that’s about brand engagement and emotional connection.

At the same time, Robinson recognises doing the right thing sustainably and culturally is important to the brand’s target consumers. Chatime’s ‘Happy Turtle project’ to eradicate single use plastic from its packaging and drive a more sustainable packaging solution overall is back on the agenda after being put on hold by Covid. A national sustainable packaging relaunch is set to take place this year.

“It is the right thing to do plus our target consumer base are very sustainably oriented. There’s also a responsibility as the market leader in bubble tea to lead that project,” Robinson adds.

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