When Dwayne Chambers became CMO of P.F. Chang’s in 2015, he let the restaurant chain’s emails go to his Spam folder for his first six months, even though he was a fan.
“When you start treating me like a human, as opposed to ‘Dear Resident’ then I’ll take you out of my junk folder,” he told his digital team.
Eventually, he did, after streamlining a roster of 13 agencies and research companies. Chambers, formerly CMO at Krispy Kreme, refocused the strategy on digital media and a farm-to-table message. Content, data, and personalization in real time are key to the new strategy.
The 25-year-old chain is working to remain relevant while holding on to the following it built as a tenant in many U.S. malls. It is changing its menus by becoming less Chinese and more pan-Asian focused, and restaurants are being modernized. At the same time, it is expanding overseas, where it already does one-third of its business. It recently opened its first U.K. restaurant in the site of a club where the Rolling Stones got their start.
Chambers spoke to Velocitize about working in a kitchen, listening to social media and why diners don’t care about marketing.
Velocitize: Is your “Farm to Wok” branding a play for the Millennial demographic?
Dwayne Chambers: There are people out there who are pandering to a group of people to try to figure out how they fit in (but) this is what we’ve done for 25 years.
If you go on our website, we have a documentary on Muranaka Farms. The Muranakas are third-generation Japanese farmers who exclusively grow our green onions in Southern California.
It’s not exclusive to Millennials. We are looking for people who are seeking a taste experience they can share.
I want to talk to the people who are our servers—people of different ages, different experiences—to hear what they have to say. Our CEO spent the first two weeks here in our restaurants, serving.
Velocitize: Does everybody do that?
Yes. We call it “Wok the Line.” Before I hit my office, I spent a two weeks in a restaurant, learning how to cook, learning how the woks work; learning what the business was about.
My best marketers are at the restaurant. Who cares about the marketing department? Nobody goes to a restaurant for the marketing department.
Velocitize: You restructured marketing, consolidated agencies and brought functions in-house. Why?
Average budgets are three to six percent of sales for a marketing department and I have less than one percent. I’m not whining, by the way; it’s what it is. But if three-quarters of that was spent on agencies and consultants and research companies, it doesn’t leave any money to do anything.
The only way to do that was finding amazingly intelligent people and set ourselves internally to be able to execute it in real time. I was blessed with such amazingly talented people who were buried in my company in a CPG-kind of bureaucracy of a hierarchy of decisions where they weren’t able to bring their own talents to bear.
Farm to Wok is an example. It’s not something I came up with; it was going to be a promotion they were going to run for two or three months. I started to read this and said: “Are you kidding me? This isn’t a promotion. This is who we are.” Our creative director said: “Do you like it? Yeah? I’ll be right back.” They went and got all this stuff they had wanted to do and got squashed: “Do you like this? How about this?”
Velocitize: How did you have to accommodate digital media, payments and loyalty programs?
You can’t tell an emotional story in traditional media. Digital and social allow you to do that, so we’re exclusively digital and social media. The closest I get is a little bit of paid digital.
We’re getting better about online ordering, gift cards and reservations—digital e-commerce if you will. We’re in the process of rebuilding our digital platform right now.
Velocitize: Do a lot of restaurant traffic comes via mobile sites like Yelp and Chowhound?
Yes, from a search standpoint, that’s 70 percent—going to a mobile device and saying “Asian restaurants near me.” It’s a really important thing.
You have to do a good job of aggregating that. It’s one of the things we just announced; we signed a deal with Gigya for single-access sign-on. So rather than sign on here if you’re doing catering or here if you’re doing takeout or here if you’re making a reservation, it’s all one place. I want to make sure you don’t have to reintroduce yourself to me.
It took six months for us to figure out how to personalize messages so that we were not sending stuff to you that you just didn’t care about. If you don’t drink alcohol, we need to stop sending messages to you about wine. That’s part of what we’re doing. It’s not just segmenting and targeting, but also personalizing that and then engaging you personally, and then learning about that, so we can do a better job next time.
Velocitize: How do you enable your team to share ideas?
When somebody brings something to me and says: “Dwayne, do you like this?” my answer is always “What does it matter what I like? What are we trying to accomplish; what’s the strategy?”
Our guests don’t care about our marketing department. They care about the experience.
We spend a tremendous amount of time internally, creating 20,000 marketers—if you will, brand ambassadors—as opposed to thinking that we hold all knowledge and it has to be coming from us.
In this pit where all my social and digital people are, surrounded by screens, we’re watching our e-commerce stats and current visits to our website. We have the heat map of our website, to see where people are moving. I have a heat map of the United States to show where the social balloons are; if a red one pops, I have to go there quickly to see what’s going on. And we’re watching the industry, to see what everybody else is doing—not to emulate them, but to understand what else people are exposed to.
The other piece is that, rather than create our own tools, there are many great tools out there. We’re building some infrastructure pieces like our own website, but ultimately the future is not the website, but an engagement platform. I think pretty soon, people are going say: “Do you remember when we had apps?”