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.