CMO50 2022 #20: Ashley Hughes

  • Name Ashley Hughes
  • Title Director of marketing
  • Company Red Rooster (Craveable Brands)
  • Commenced role December 2018
  • Reporting Line Chief executive officer
  • Member of the Executive Team No
  • Marketing Function 9 staff, 3 direct reports
  • Industry Sector QSR
  • 2021 ranking New to CMO50
  • Related

    Brand Post

    When Ashley Hughes joined Red Rooster three-and-a-half years ago, it felt like a brave call.

    “Looking back now, it was the best one I could ever have made,” he tells CMO. “This role has seen me grow personally and professionally, our franchise community trust and relationships have significantly improved, and the brand performance has gone from strength to strength.”

    The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the fried chicken. “The launch of fried chicken nationally for Reds definitely rates up there among my golden marketing moments,” Hughes says.

    “We delivered on our strategic goal of improving perceptions of the brand, both with our existing customers, but also with a raft of new ones that had never considered the brand before. The successful national launch of our Crunchy Fried Chicken has been phenomenal, not only because it delivered significant sales growth, but also because it resulted in a complete turnaround in the public’s perception and acceptance of the brand. 

    “Australians are talking and interacting positively with Reds on all levels and the brand is well and truly back on the radar of Australian culture.”

    Innovative marketing

    The burning platform for launching this innovative new product was evident when Hughes took up the director of marketing’s reins. Red Rooster had lost relevance and sales and share were declining rapidly with increasingly disgruntled franchisees.

    Brand tracking clearly highlighted the brand was out of touch with customers, skewed significantly older at 45+ years, and ranked highly on negative brand attributes such as boring and traditional, especially among the younger demographic. Lower brand frequency and very low spontaneous awareness against key competitors was equally apparent.

    “The brand was not part of cultural conversations. We needed to increase brand relevance and consideration among a younger [under 30] demographic and to recruit a new generation of customers. Put simply, the brand was slowly fading away,” Hughes says.

    Compounding the situation was a lack of meaningful menu development. “Menu-wise, Reds was largely reliant on roast chicken, but it had stagnated, lost focus and relevance within both food culture and the everyday lives of Australians,” Hughes continues. “Reds was seen as boring, old fashioned and irrelevant. We had to play into the ‘treat’ to have any chance of growth.”  

    “To turn this ‘tanker’ around, we set about exciting existing customers and recruiting new ones.”

    Key for Hughes was leading the brand’s biggest menu transformation in the last 50 years. Along with deletions and renovations, the development, implementation and ongoing execution of ‘Crunchy Fried Chicken’ firmly shifted the brand from permissible to treat.

    “We knew we only had one shot at getting this right. So, in conjunction with our NPD, supply teams and external suppliers, we developed a fresh [not frozen] chicken product hand brined for 12-36 hours, hand battered and breaded [every 90mins] in every restaurant throughout the day to ensure we serve fresh, hot product to customers,” Hughes says.

    “Fried chicken has brought a new customer, more youthful and more ethnically diverse than ever before to Reds. It has delivered incremental sales without cannibalisation of core roast or burgers/rolls.”

    Sales for example, have increased 26 per cent over two years and Red Rooster is the fastest-growing brand in the category for customer traffic and sales.

    “It’s no mean feat considering brand appeal and the competition we are up against,” Hughes adds.

    Business smarts

    Achieving such a turnaround was dependent on Hughes maximising his position as a key member of the Red Rooster executive team. He was well aware of his responsibility to turn around the brand’s strategic direction, both consumer-facing and internally with franchisees, the crew in restaurants and wider internal functions across parent company, Craveable Brands.

    “This involved defining and executing a new direction for the brand after many years of declining performance, loss of customer count and market share, and a loss of trust from franchisees,” he explains. “I quickly set about evolving the brand positioning to connect with a younger audience, injecting a greater focus on joy and happiness and leaning into the ‘treat’ occasion which is the underlying need and reason people eat fast food.

    “After the last two years of significant sales growth the franchisee community are firm believers in the brand strategy and key growth drivers.”

    As well as debuting Fried Chicken, Red Rooster has launched Fried Chicken, Fried Tender burger ranges and Spicy Fried Chicken, adding incremental sales, ensuring relevance and “superiorly craveable products”, and meeting a clear objective of embedding the brand into modern, everyday Australian culture. Fried Tender Burgers, for example, had a specific objective of stealing category burger sales and has seen burger sales for Red Rooster jump 30 per cent over recent months.

     “We improved our media strategy by targeting under 30s, especially on social channels,” Hughes continues. “We led with TikTok and a targeted media and sports sponsorship. We leaned into driving the brand into culture, partnering with the Sydney Roosters NRL team and NRL Touch, started a merchandise ecommerce shop, and participated heavily in conversations happening about the brand.”

    The Sydney Roosters sponsorship was particularly useful in connecting with a very hard to reach audience and ensured the QSR could be part of relevant culture. “The synergies are hard to ignore,” Hughes says.

    “We knew customers were talking about the brand as a ‘money laundering business’ - there were memes and videos about having no customers and the restaurants being a money laundering operation. Bleak.

    “So we played along, leaned into the conversation and leveraged it to have some fun, versus this happening without us having a role. This proved to be very popular and propelled us into a whole other realm on socials.”

    The metrics are moving, with a 3 per cent increase in both brand appeal and consideration. According to NPD Crest data, customer traffic growth has outpaced category growth every quarter since June 2020, the fastest in the category and reaching +11 per cent in FY22.

    “So we know it’s working,” Hughes adds.

    Customer-led thinking

    None of this could be achieved, however, without improving the customer experience of Red Rooster’s franchisees first. Hughes says the marketing team especially needed to improve in two areas: Commercial finance knowledge and understanding operational processes.

    “This was to ensure they knew the impact of the decisions they were making on restaurant profitability and how efficiently the restaurants could execute marketing initiatives,” he explains. “With a network of restaurants generally run by staff where it’s often their first job, complexity of process is a huge barrier to excellent execution.”

    So the marketing team hit the field, working in restaurants for multiple days per quarter, gaining appreciation for the complexity of what onsite staff did and the efforts put into running the restaurants. “This heightened our focus on the need to ensure simplicity and remove anything that slowed service or made it difficult to execute,” Hughes says.

    In addition, a dedicated effort was made to build cross-functional team culture and the sense of one team. “Undoubtedly, this was responsible and accountable for delivering outcomes and the resulting positive performance,” Hughes says.

    “Big focus was applied to recognising and rewarding the efforts of others and ensuring they felt appreciated for any brand success just as much as anyone else. They were made to feel like important and integral members of the Red Rooster Team. It’s been nothing short of a positive cultural revolution.”

    Leadership impact

    Having joined a business going backwards in terms of sales and share, Hughes is proud of having led such a significant turnaround and transformation of the Red Rooster brand.

    “Consumer perceptions have shifted with consideration up 3 per cent, we’ve had sales growth of 26 per cent, market share gains and improved profitability for both the franchises and Craveable Brands,” he says.

    “I have led an awesome marketing team, rebuilt and reskilled with renewed focus on the customer and on improving franchisee engagement. We have delivered a dedicated focus on food/menu innovation led by the introduction of Crunchy Fried Chicken, Spicy Fried and New Fried Tender Burgers coupled with new menu architecture to change customer shopping behaviour. We’ve evolved the brand positioning, brand tagline, implemented a new media approach leaning into digital and social.

    “And really importantly, we’ve driven belief within the team that we, with our partner agencies, are the ones to lead this brand with lots of potential, to new heights.”


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