The importance of Chili’s Twitter conversation with Jenna Fischer of The Office.

Yes, importance; we’ll explain why The Office is important again momentarily.

This week, actress Jenna Fischer stepped back into character as Pam Beasley Halpert of The Office. She “reprised” her role in a personal Twitter message asking her fans if they thought Chili’s was ready to lift their ban. In case you don’t remember the episode, Pam was banned from Chili’s for life for causing a drunken disturbance.

The brand quickly and intelligently responded with a warm welcome on Twitter and a very dry press release stating that the 11-year ban had been officially lifted. They managed to keep the release oblique and in the language of The Office, which earned them high praise from fans on the internet.

Why was this important? Chili’s recognized the opportunity to latch on to a pop culture vehicle with mass and cult appeal – and they did it dead right. It’s no coincidence that Casual Dining has sunk in popularity at the same time that television viewing habits (and ratings) have. The two were stitched together tightly.

National chains used prime time television advertising slots to reach mass audiences. Networks organized their programming around Friday pay-day logic by airing their most popular shows on Thursday nights for decades. The Office was part of this tradition on NBC. Ratings have dropped over time as DVRs, Netflix and dozens of other sources of entertainment and distraction (see: your phone) have fragmented prime time.

The Office, prime time, Twitter, Chili's
The ratings slide since The Office stopped airing
OK, why is this news?

The ratings decline is not news. The Office has been off the air for years. Why is this Chili’s incident worth discussing? Not because of fans of The Office will be charging into Chili’s necessarily. They have found a way to grab a mass audience for a short time and serve a compelling brand message. This action will drive short term traffic.

Because TV prime time has been diminished, reaching a mass audience in any forum is much, much more difficult. That is why Olive Garden, Chili’s and Casual Dining, et al have been in a slide. With a lack of vehicles for mass reach, driving mass appeal and traffic has suffered. Even a tremendous and efficient media strategy across digital platforms can’t match talking to your exact audience 10 or 20 million people at a time.

This stunt was a successful way to replicate that sort of reach with the added bonus of an internet response (which wasn’t even possible during the days of Must See TV). How many televised opportunities for mass reach still exist? The Super Bowl, The Oscars and down from there. Reaching a wide swath of Americans has never been more complex (or expensive). And how many brands have the gravity to air on The Super Bowl or The Oscars? Very few. So few in fact that spots were still available for the Fox broadcast of Super Bowl LI even in the week leading up to the game.

Brands will have to find ways to reach their audiences using the new combination of channels that they most frequently use. Jenna Fischer is no longer on a prime time show. The Office is not even making new episodes. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be leveraged to tell the brand story. Time will tell whether Chili’s is able to replicate the success of this stunt.

Casual vs Fast Casual – A comparison of media spending and social media

Casual Dining, Fast Casual. There has been much written about the battle for your stomach being waged between the two concept categories. Casual Dining, the aging champ, still hoping to hold on to its crown and Fast Casual, the plucky upstart finding new ways to surprise its foe and customers alike.

Fast Casual YOY sales growth is noted as almost double the rest of the restaurant industry. Traffic and sales for both categories can be easily compared. Digging a bit deeper, there is something else at play beyond those trend lines. In lieu of another inspection of those regularly reported numbers, we compared expenditures in media.

Using Kantar*, we pulled media spending for a two-year period by five brands casual dining and six fast casual brands. As you can see, over the course of two years casual dining spent almost 10 times as much as their competitors in fast casual. In television they spent over 10 times as much over that same timespan!

media spending casual dining fast casual

What’s telling is where the competition is closer: online. Fast casual brands spend just over half as much as the casual dining brands in the digital space. Not reported here is paid social and influencer marketing. For context, an analysis of four other brand categories outside of the restaurant space (beverage, CPG, finance, hospitality) we found that casual dining is actually the lowest reported spender in the digital space.

Looking at their media spend one might assume the growth was flip-flopped. But if media spend is a measure of outbound marketing, we wanted to juxtapose that against a measure of brand affinity and potentially loyalty – social media**. Looking at the same brands in casual an fast casual, we counted the social subscribers, comment volume and net sentiment of those comments over the same two year period as the media spends above.

social media metrics casual dining fast casual

Our hypothesis going into this research was that more media spend would lead to superior social media performance. But immediately, you can see spending 10 times as much on television only earns Casual Dining brands 17% more social media posts on average. Obviously, media is not being spent to attain social media comments, but at these rates, Casual Dining spent $329 per comment as a category; Fast Casual, $113. Staggering difference.

On top of that, the net sentiment of those posts is much higher for Fast Casual brands – and that’s including Chipotle’s terrible net sentiment of 47% – which brings down the average due to many posts about their recent woes.

Sentiment is important because it tells us whether people are posting positive or negative content about the topic, in this case – brands. Sentiment is measured here on a scale of -100 to +100, with zero being neutral. More people may be posting about Casual Dining brands, but those posting about Fast Casual brands are saying overwhelmingly positive things. Prior to Chipotle’s food safety lapses, we had recorded a net sentiment over 80 for the brands and used them as an example of positive sentiment.

Both post volume and sentiment might be a result of how these brands are using those online media dollars. Fast Casual definitely has tighter social integration in store and in online ad campaigns.

Where Casual Dining is leading obviously is in the number of Facebook subscribers (Likes). As a metric, they’re up 2-to-1 on Fast Casual. And isolating the online media spend of both category, Fast Casual has invested $3 for each Facebook page like, while Casual Dining spent only $2.54 as a category for each of theirs. This is actually indicative of the problem Casual Dining brands are having. Facebook has the oldest user base of all social platforms in the US, with the fastest growing user segment being those over 50. Facebook still has a large base of youthful users, but reaching them via the channel is nearly impossible without paying – organic reach is down around 6%.

As you can see, Casual Dining brands are clearly missing something. They’re spending much more than their Fast competition, but getting less in the way of sales and social recognition. In an upcoming post, we’ll provide deeper analysis into these comparative numbers.

Complete charts:
media spend social metrics casual dining fast casual
Want these numbers for your own? Get the raw sheet here.

*Kantar, though an industry standard tool for competitive media spend analysis, is only a guide. The numbers below are therefore best described as “reported spend.” Most mass media investments, such as national television are reliably included, while sponsorships and events will be predictably under-reported.

**All social data was pulled using Netbase. Without access to each account, we’re unable to track engagement on an account and post level or other deep funnel metrics. Posts reported are filtered to exclude content by each respective brand about itself.