In this episode, Forbes senior contributor, Alicia Kelso, sits down with The Elliot Group’s Joan Ray, Panera Bread’s George Hanson, Planet FitnessJeremy (J.T.) Tucker and RMSDr. Joel Davis to discuss how brands are using both data and creativity to form a new customer experience.

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Alicia Kelso:
Welcome to the newest installment of the web series revenue stream with RMS. My name is Alicia Kelso, I am a senior contributor at forbes.com where I cover the restaurant industry. Today I am with a power panel to share the word on the street. We’re going to discuss how brands are using both data and creativity to form a new customer experience. Joining me today on the call, we’ve got Joan Ray, she’s the executive vice president the Elliott Group. Her experience includes human resource management and executive search in the hospitality and retail sectors. She successfully pairs talent and companies in ways that unlock growth and make futures happen. Hi, Joan.

Joan Ray:
Hi Alicia. Thanks for having me today.

Alicia Kelso:
Great, we got George Hanson. He’s the chief digital officer at Panera Bread. He joined Panera in late 2019 from Under Armour with a goal of transitioning digital from a service or capability to a business. Hi, George.

George Hanson:
Hey Alicia, great to be with you.

Alicia Kelso:
We’ve got Jeremy J.T Tucker. He’s the chief marketing officer of Planet Fitness. And similar to George he recently switched industries joining Planet Fitness from the auto industry. His goal is to drive quantifiable and long-term business results through actionable consumer engagement and product strategies. Hi J.T.

Jeremy Tucker:
Hi Alicia, good to see you.

Alicia Kelso:
And finally we’ve got Dr. Joel Davis. He’s the chief strategy officer at Revenue Management Solutions. He’s a familiar face to RMS clients and an artificial intelligence professor at the University of Florida for measure. Hi, Joel.

Dr. Joel Davis:
Hi, how you doing? Thanks for having me.

Alicia Kelso:
Good. Okay, guys. Well, I’m excited about this topic. It’s complex, and I know that you guys will make some sense of it. So let’s dive in here. In 2020, the year 2020, customer habits obviously shifted very sharply as customers themselves were forced to engage with brands in a way that was facilitated almost exclusively through digital that may have not been done before, or at least not to the level that it was done. So with that in mind, I want to start with you, George. Considering Panera has long been a leader in the digital experience, can you tell us how having that infrastructure in place helped the brand throughout the past year as these consumers shifted their habits?

George Hanson:
Alicia, Panera started making sizable investments in digital ordering and fulfillment capabilities way back in 2014. And that’s quite a ways back for the restaurant industry. So we were able to enter 2020 with a pretty strong ordering and fulfillment foundation as well as 40 million member loyalty program. And what that really allowed us to do is respond very rapidly to the guests whose preferences changed on a dime starting in March of last year. So we were able to expand our offering. I’ll never forget the day where our CEO Niren came in on a Monday after being frustrated by not being able to get a grocery delivery window for three weeks. And he’s like, “Hey, we have fresh ingredients, certainly not the assortment of a traditional grocery store, but a lot of the basics, and we can guarantee delivery in 40 minutes. Why don’t we provide that capability to our communities that we serve in?”

George Hanson:
So within two weeks, we were able to spin up a grocery service with no plans of it really necessarily being a business unit, but just really responding to what we knew many people needed, and many of our customers responded to. We also expanded services. So with some of the cafes having to close, we launched a curbside service where guests could just pull up, and what we did that was I think especially unique was coupled that with some geofencing capabilities that allowed the cafe to be automatically notified when the guests arrived so that we could be out there waiting for their order.

George Hanson:
And then I’d say lastly, just expanding, leveraging all that loyalty data to improve and expand on our one-to-one communication, whether that be the status of the cafe and whether the dining room was open or closing or opening back up or the status of their order really improving our ability to connect one-to-one versus sort of a mass messaging. And those are all reactionary. Because we had that infrastructure in place we were also able to play offense, and we launched a coffee subscription program, which was well in the plans coming into 2020.

George Hanson:
Certainly, it paused temporarily while we were reacting in the peak of the crisis, but allowed us to play offense, as well as react to the situation on the ground. And I think it was helpful to have a lot of that infrastructure in place. We didn’t have to build as much. We could expand and improve.

Alicia Kelso:
Sure. A number that is you said kind of stood out to me covering the restaurant industry 40 million loyalty members, it’s just a benchmark number, it’s a stunning number. I’m curious to know how that data played a role in ensuring that the digital offerings that you had many of those offerings in place for a long time how did that ensure that you were able to meet those quickly changing needs?

George Hanson:
Yeah, I mean, a couple of ways. First, we were able to see which customers we’re pivoting in what ways so we could instant insights into major shifts in our business, and which customer segments were returning, which ones had lapsed, what categories and dayparts shifted, and why. So that was on the insight front. We could gather very quickly a very good understanding of what was happening to our business beyond just the surface metrics, and then we were able to then apply that in our communication. So how we were able to communicate directly with those audiences and those segments, understanding how their shift from working in the office to work from home, how that move their dayparts, and their category preferences, how different jobs needed to be done instead of just their occasion being lunch, for example, by themselves from the office and then it was evolving into dinner for the family.

George Hanson:
And so, we were able to quickly adjust the menu and start to introduce family bundles all because we had these rich insights from over half of our transactions being loyalty transactions that just provided a wealth of information for us to make decisions quickly.

Alicia Kelso:
J.T, Planet Fitness, you can’t necessarily add curbside or switch dayparts or anything like that. So I’m interested to hear how your brand pivoted towards digital channels to remain relevant throughout the past year. And if you can, more specifically how your team relied on your own customer data to enhance your customer experience, especially given your concept when you weren’t necessarily able to see your customers in person.

Jeremy Tucker:
Yeah, Alicia, that was the biggest challenge for us, and we have this incredible brand, which is built upon really disrupting the industry and focusing on the member relentlessly and trying to get as close to them and understand the data signals so we can understand behavior because marketing is great. I love the function. The marketing here is so much fun because I’m not just trying to shape or nudge a behavior, I’m actually trying to change your behavior, which is trying to get you to exercise and get in and get healthier.

Jeremy Tucker:
So March 13th, I’ll never forget, it was a Friday the 13th. That’s the day that I was flying, and when I landed, I got a call, we got on and the clubs were going to close because of COVID. And so your question was spot on, it’s all of a sudden, the brand that we’ve built, which is high touch, the judgment-free zone, which has this incredible community is shut down. So there are two things that really changed the trajectory for us of how we approach this, and both were in place before this. One was the social community we had and the engagement we had across all those platforms, and the social listening, the interaction that we had, which gave us that qualitative feed as well as some quantitative measures to help us understand what our members were doing, saying and what are their sentiment.

Jeremy Tucker:
But then on top of that, we’d worked really hard in the area of launching our app, revitalizing it, relaunching it, and bringing it to life so that we can really serve as a member and use it as a gateway into the club. So those two things immediately came to mind. And my team had said, “You know what? We have an idea because we thought this COVID thing might be a big thing, and we’re going to let’s do a free workout for America just to help everybody get moving and help them understand fitness is essential, and we want to get you going.” And once I got that call, I picked up my phone and I called my team and said, “You know what? We’re going to do that on Monday.” This is a Friday night like at 10PM by this point, so we’re going to do it every single day until we get open again.

Jeremy Tucker:
And we thought it would be a couple of months, maybe a couple of weeks hopefully. And now today we’re basically going above and beyond 365 days of being online live every day, 365 days a year, and 36 countries around the globe tuning into us bringing fitness forward to the world. And we started to listen and to go into it and start to look at the data triggers, the behavior triggers, the first thing that I saw over the course even that weekend was our step count for our members drop like that, 50% evaporated. So all of a sudden, I was like, “Oh my gosh, we just need to get people moving.” And a 66% decline in exercise rate we were seeing or tracking within the app.

Jeremy Tucker:
So it really helped us understand our job right now is to entertain, inspire, help people get through this and just give them a little relief during their day as we are going along through the early stages of COVID. But as we went, and as we kept going, again, my marketing funnel is funded by our membership, so we froze all that. So imagine marketing has been zeroed out. We didn’t stop the marketing, actually, we leaned down as a company. And we did that by going into a mining and listening to our consumers we couldn’t talk to them anymore through the social triggers, through the data channels that we had, through the behavioral patterns we’re seeing in the app.

Jeremy Tucker:
And over time, we went from entertaining and just getting people moving to find out hey, there are barriers that are keeping people from exercising, or even being ready to come into a club as these early markets are starting to open in the early stages of the summer. And we said, “All right now we need to address, fear, uncertainty and doubt.” The things that are going to be the barriers to keep you to come in. And they were a little different based upon demographics and cohorts. So the older populations’ concerns were a little different than the younger populations, men and women were a little different. And we started to pivot and create marketing messages and creating programs specifically for them.

Jeremy Tucker:
That led us to do new things like bring forward what we call our Clean Center messaging, which is how we clean our clubs. We already had a incredible program in place best in the industry. And we had an operating manual and playbook developed with ops that we started to say, “You know what? Let’s help our members understand what we’re doing so if they choose to come into clubs, they know what to do, they know what we’re doing, and it takes away that pure uncertainty and doubt.” So it went from a little bit more of the celebratory fun to more of the education. Then we started bringing in some fit facts, different things that people needed to know about how really fitness can help stay healthy, be more active, reduce obesity.

Jeremy Tucker:
I mean, 78% of the COVID hospitalizations were due to folks that were obese. So we said, “You know what? We have a role to play within this, and this is important. And we want to give as many tools as possible, and as open-handed as possible to our members to help them do that. And not just our members prospects, people who are not a member of the club.” And as we went, we continued to learn to watch the behavioral triggers, to watch what videos were being used, what workouts were being used, by whom and how often, and we were getting to 1.5 million views and engagements per day, over 155 million views of the content we developed just on Facebook alone right now, as of this moment in time.

Jeremy Tucker:
But again, we pivoted as we came out of COVID into the fall to say like now people are really looking to the reason they want to go to a gym is because it’s not just about getting fitter, it’s not about… Usually guys want to get bigger, women want to get smaller and everybody wants to lose weight. For the first time in October, we saw another trigger come through that start to show us the number one reason people were engaging with our content, with our app or even going to the club in those early stages was because they wanted to have a way to get over anxiety and over stress, and they needed fitness and exercise as an ability to do that. Is the first time we’ve seen that holistically across the culture and across our membership base.

Jeremy Tucker:
So once again, we use that to pivot our marketing strategy, our content, and really help people say, “You know what? Not only can we help you do that, but the number one barrier became if it was hard to get started on fitness before, it was nearly impossible as we’re going into New Year’s this year, and it helps us refine the message to say it’s time to get unstuck, and helping people restart their fitness journey.” So we have to actually, once again, pivot all the tools, all the ways we engage with our members, or even people again, who hadn’t been a gym for a long time to say, we’re going to help you start from ground zero all over again, because we’re all in this together.

Jeremy Tucker:
And we did that in a way that leverages the data, and leverage the usage we saw from the content, leverage the usage resolve within the app, all these behavioral triggers, so we applied the brand filter and the humanity to it. So it really was the art and the science coming together to make this super, super powerful for us. And now we’re all the way on the other side of it, and our clubs are open, our membership basis is active. We’re seeing the joins that we saw from New Years continue to come through the spring, and we’re pivoting yet again because now that the vaccines are rolling out, we’re starting to see different segments actually start to really ratchet up their interest in health and wellness and their questions and what they’re looking for and how to start yet again, now that I’m vaccinated. And so now’s another time for us to take another step forward.

Jeremy Tucker:
So we’ve been leading the data all along the way. It’s changed completely the way that we approached this integration model within Planet Fitness traditionally a bricks and mortar business shut down to a digital only business for all of us in the fitness industry. But what’s forever changed now is because of that, now our members want a hybrid approach, they’re never going back, they don’t want one or the other, they want both, and they want it on their terms. And the digital triggers that we’ve learned, the behavioral patterns, how to actually service them and provide them access however they want it, the member in control has fundamentally shifted our philosophy and our approach. Not shifted, but accelerated it beyond where we were just from a purely retail perspective, physical perspective.

Alicia Kelso:
That’s a good point. And I appreciate you bringing in that nimbleness, and it sounds like both you and George relied heavily on all sorts of consumer data from various sources to provide that nimbleness. So that makes me wonder about another potential challenge here, we’re not only surviving the past year with, we’re trying to thrive through it, right? While simultaneously changing operating models from our concepts. So, Joel, I want to shift over to you then with that in mind, and in this daunting nature of data, and all of the sources that this data comes from, and it can be kind of intimidating. So with your perspective working with 100,000 restaurants in 40 countries, what would you say, which data was the most important and useful to navigate this crisis in your opinion?

Dr. Joel Davis:
Yeah, thanks. And it’s really interesting listening to George and J.T. Maybe just to build on something they both talked about, I think what made their organizations thrive as much as possible through this period was their ability to make decisions based on the data they have. And so I think one of the things that brands do that harms them quite often is they wait to get a perfect set of data, they wait to collect more data, they keep on waiting until they know more to make a decision. And March 13th of last year, there was no data coming in on March 14th that was going to help you make a better decision, because this had never happened to us before.

Dr. Joel Davis:
And so that just wasn’t the data set that was waiting to be connected by a smart data scientist to help you make a better decision. So I think the best data that brands can use is the data they already have. So the both of them talked about the projects and the things they already had in the pipeline, the plumbing J.T said that was already in the works in order to be a more nimble brand to be able to make better decisions with the data they had. And I think the brands that have really done well in the last year, or yet as well as they could do in the last year are the ones that took that information they already had, and then ran with it. And they’re also the brands that continually looked at that data as it changed very rapidly over the last 12 months, and continued to update their decisions and continued to update the directions they go.

Dr. Joel Davis:
So I think one of the things that I think is interesting in listening to J.T and Planet Fitness is just how they were able to listen to their customers and continually pivot throughout the last 12 months as changes were taking place in the marketplace. I think many brands would have assumed that their customers would like a return to normal whatever that means these days, and would just build their plans and their strategies around that return to normal. And I just don’t see that happening either in the fitness space, and certainly not in the restaurant space. There’s going to continue to be a fundamental shift in how consumers use brands and how brands interact with consumers as a reaction over the last year and the brands that are able to capitalize on that and continue to learn from the data they have and that they continue to collect are in a very enviable position compared to brands that can’t.

Alicia Kelso:
That’s interesting, because you talked about this fundamental shift with consumers and brands. So Joan met that sort of tees up the ball nicely for what you do, and recruiting new executives into the hospitality sector. I mean, how does all of this fit into what companies are looking for, and hasn’t changed because of the past year?

Joan Ray:
Yeah, it’s interesting. Companies are using a lot more data to make decisions to benefit their customers. We also find our clients are making more fact based decisions on people as well. And they want us to help them build the business case as to why a particular candidate is likely to be successful. And it’s a combination of demonstrated track record of success combined with demonstrated agile learning ability, showing that they can take their past learning and success and match it to future changing opportunities.

Joan Ray:
For us, hiring in all disciplines has been brisk since the start of the fourth quarter of last year. We are seeing more titles like chief revenue and chief commercial officer. These are roles that employ analytic skill sets linked with brand marketing and sales. And we’re also seeing roles that were once more prevalent in e-commerce crossing over to restaurant and hospitality companies as e-commerce becomes a more popular channel for use. Marketing teams that are focused on CRM to help build that personal relationship with individual customers have become important, and we’ve noticed the candidates that have any loyalty and CRM training are in very high demand and commanding higher salaries than their classical brand marketing counterparts right now.

Joan Ray:
We believe that the chief marketing officer or chief brand officer career path of the future will be more dominated by digital social and CRM analytics training, as opposed to just a traditional brand management, which has been the case in the past. We’re also seeing chief experience officer roles that combine IT and marketing have become much more popular. For some of our clients, we have also seen an increased flexibility around virtual work environment, and many people have been hired and started positions without traveling or even meeting in person. So this is something we’re curious to see if the trend continues as some offers have actually specified they expect people to move once office restrictions are lifted, and we’re curious to see if that actually happens.

Alicia Kelso:
Okay. So Joel, going back to you, then, based on Joan’s comments, I know that you’ve done a lot of research specifically on data as it applies to culture. So I’m curious to know expanding on her comments, do you think company culture then needs to change to allow more of these database decision changes across the entire system to take place?

Dr. Joel Davis:
Yeah, I do. And I don’t think it’s necessarily just company culture, I would call this out in two parts. I think individual decision makers have to open themselves up to making decisions with data first. You can’t change the company culture, and just tell people to make these decisions with data. That also has to be part of who you are. So it’s kind of interesting that Joan is mentioning that brands are looking for individuals that have this as a skill set, using analytics, using data to make better decisions because I think once business leaders decide that they can use that data, that they’re free to use that data, and that there’s a clear path forward that’s positive when they use that data, I think you’ll start to see companies adopt data more in the decision making.

Dr. Joel Davis:
When it comes to company culture, I think one of the issues that I’ve seen in my 20 years of doing analytics and data science is that you often come to the table with a lot of data, you come to the table with algorithms and some math, and you’re trying to convince people around the table that what they see is something they should act on. And quite often the people around that table don’t have that as an experience. Joan’s mentioning, maybe the chief marketing officer of yesteryear, maybe he or she didn’t have that experience in making decisions with data. And so they’re still making decisions based on their gut.

Dr. Joel Davis:
And although that’s good when there’s no data, that’s not necessarily a great way forward when your data rich, like you have 40 billion loyalty members, you definitely want to be using that data to help inform your decision making. And so I think there is some time that’s going to have to elapse when those people maybe who don’t have a history of using data to make decisions kind of move out of the workforce, and other people move in, those people who are more data ready, or data decision ready moving.

Alicia Kelso:
Joan, does that…

Joan Ray:
I think the types of data that are being used for decision making, I think that in fairness classical brand marketers have always used data to make decisions, but we have different types of data available today that are more sort of in the moment, and directly from the consumer. And so this will require a bit of change in thinking and skill set. And in some cases, new functional skills and teams are going to be required. And these people aren’t going to typically be found at the intersection of marketing IT and analytics. And oftentimes, I think there’ll be new positions that have not existed previously.

Dr. Joel Davis:
Building on that, I think that’s a really interesting idea, because traditionally companies have separated all of those functions into these different little silos that don’t work well together. The IT or the analytics teams don’t necessarily understand or appreciate the brand management function the marketing has had. They don’t value that data as much as that other side does, and vice versa. So I think bringing those teams together, or at least making them more cohesive as a unit, I think is a really important strategy for brands to start looking at.

Dr. Joel Davis:
I think that’s been ongoing over the last several years. I would just say I think it is very difficult for decision-makers to use data when they’re domain experts. And so they really have to challenge themselves all the time to really ask themselves, “Am I using this data to make a decision? Or am I looking for my decision in the data?” And I think there’s a difference in [inaudible 00:25:41].

Jeremy Tucker:
I think that’s the one thing that’s been really interesting with COVID, because traditionally, there’s been a lot of… Other industries, companies I’ve been in where you have a playbook, you have experience, you’ve been trained as a classical brand manager or marketer, and that’s the way it’s done. And the interesting thing about what I was able to experience here at Planet Fitness was number one, I was coming in at noon, so I was the guy who was coming in as a change agent. But number two COVID kind of threw all that out the window. So it opened up an opportunity for me, and I think many of my colleagues in different industries to say, “You know what? This is the way that we want to approach it, this way we should try it.” And Joel, you mentioned about kind of waiting to get the perfect data set, you’re absolutely right.

Jeremy Tucker:
I think one of the biggest deterrents to actually making the changes that we needed to do and other industries and other companies and even a little bit here was, we didn’t go, we had perfect. And now out of necessity, we leaned in and said, “This is the data that we have, this is what we need to do.” And some of those conversations that we needed to have we were able to have them because if you take the threatening off and you say, “Here’s the brand perspective, here’s the gut perspective,” so you apply that humanity to it, strategy to it on top of the data. So therefore, we’re going to do this and not being scared. If the thing doesn’t go, if it goes left to right, we’ll pivot. So we’re going to still move the direction this way. It might not be a straight path, but we’re going to get to where we’re going to go and leading the team to focus on the end goal is what I think you can do to help really drive the adoption of data as a key function of driving the business.

Jeremy Tucker:
And then, because of data, you were able to test it, see it and you got to be able to lean into the good and the bad and have the courage to be like, “You know what? That didn’t work as we thought it would,” and have the test and learn, test and fail culture that supports us. So whether that’s coming as a whole organization, or being able to lead it from your individual leadership role to the company is critical, because that’s what builds… [inaudible 00:27:43] my fitness reference the muscle memory to actually give you the evolution. I think that COVID just gave us the opportunity to have necessity shortchange that and what we’re trying to do right now.

George Hanson:
J.T, I couldn’t agree more around the outcome focus. I think some people when they hear we need to be a data driven enterprise, it puts the center of the focus on process versus outcomes. So what I’ve found to be helpful is articulating how we can make better decisions that impact the guests, and the value creation that we’re trying to drive within our business and for our guests, and how data, analytics and the infrastructure that supports both of those capabilities as well as the talent are enabling us to have those better outcomes. And I think when it’s seen as a capability versus the end destination, I think it can get a bit lost and fuzzy and obscure. And so I think it’s really, really important to talk about data in terms of its ability to drive a better outcome, whether that be business outcomes, or guest experience outcomes. The process and the data itself is less interesting. Those are inputs. I think the outputs to your point are what’s critical.

Alicia Kelso:
And I’m glad both of you just intuitively shifted back to that, ultimately, to the customer experience here and J.T even called that the end game. I assume that’s a big part of that end game that you guys were seeking here. And I think with that in mind, all of us probably recognize that we’re never going to go back to the world that we once knew, fair? So if you think about that, how would you guys describe combining the science of data and innovation to shape your culture, excuse me, particularly as it pertains to that customer’s experience being the ultimate end game and J.T, I’ll start with you since you coined that term for us.

Jeremy Tucker:
Yeah, I mean, I think for us, it is truly picking up on little bit what George was talking about. There’s something in there that you said, George, it’s if you can unlock the vision of the business lead from your executive team, your vision as your brand, and the vision of what you’re trying to solve for, and align all of the executive players around that, then there’s a shared purpose for understanding the data, and the process and what you’re doing.

Jeremy Tucker:
And for us, it was always about the member. So going back back to my customer, and thinking very hard and deep about what are the things that keep you from coming to a gym and getting more fit. But now, that’s the orthodoxy I’ve got to take on every day. Now I’ve got a business issue right in front of me, which is I got to get people over the hump coming back after COVID. So what is changed for us I think, number one is, it’s in a way, although we’ve been further away from the member because of COVID, because we couldn’t actually be with them, we actually got closer to the member by understanding their data, their needs, their behaviors as an organization. And it’s changed how we actually think about and dream and bring to life what we want to do.

Jeremy Tucker:
And what has changed is instead of bringing the processes and the tools that we’ve always thought about as we’ve disrupted the category from Planet Fitness perspective, as us as experts, as fitness enthusiasts as leaders in the space, now we’re letting the consumer guide us, the member guide us and show us the path forward. And it’s a little scary, it required a lot of discussion, think about our franchisees. We’re a franchisee organization, you’re telling me we’re going to talk about things digitally and give digital fitness and not bring someone into my club. And it’s easy whenever the club’s close, because the answer is yes, but now what we’re open.

Jeremy Tucker:
So now we’ve been able to show this is the way forward, and this is why we will really want to understand and invest in or invest in where the member is going. Because if we hadn’t done that, leading into this pandemic, and again, it wasn’t perfect, we didn’t have it built 100% right, all the plumbing and everything that we had, but we had it, then we would have missed. And so it’s preparing for the next hurdle and making sure that we’re ready to go, and really leaning in and there. And this is the focus of the member, a focus on innovation, and not being afraid of either not having the right data or having too much data. And that’s a delicate balance, and this game that we are playing.

Alicia Kelso:
Yeah, and I love something that you said, you got closer to the member. Even though they weren’t there physically, you actually get closer to them by understanding them more through this data conversation that we’ve been having. And George, I want to get your thoughts on that. And I’ve had the privilege of covering Panera for 11 years now. And I remember in 2014, when you set the pace with that really robust digital infrastructure in the restaurant space. So is what J.T saying, does that echo with you as well, where you have this robust infrastructure in place, but you have the ability to get closer to the consumer now, because you were maybe forced to use that data a little differently?

George Hanson:
Yeah, I think like, J.T, it starts and ends with the guest, their experience and the value exchange between us and them. And so data, infrastructure, all of those capabilities really serve that purpose, and really no other purpose. And so, I think culturally for us, there’s not a cultural barrier to overcome, it’s really about recognizing that while there’s a good foundation, there’s a lot of continued improvements to make. And so for example our loyalty, the data that we have on our loyalty member base has really been focused on the loyalty program. So like the surprise and delight rewards, as well as within the email communication.

George Hanson:
But a year ago, when you go to our digital properties, it was the same experience for everybody. And so taking that logic and bringing that to every touchpoint. And then in our world, it’s sort of like the pre-order, the order and the post order, but after the order, if there’s an issue, we really aren’t responsive to the guests. We’ve designed everything around the happy path. And so with so many pivots and changes to the way our guests get their order fulfilled, whether it be through catering, delivery, pickup, in café, curbside, drive thru, there’s so many different journeys where we’re not as far as we want to be in terms of making that a truly personalized experience or enhancing it.

George Hanson:
And it’s not about personalizing it just to add bells and whistles, it absolutely has to drive value to the guests and value to us. So I think some of that is we’re really making a lot of important investments to continue to enable more relevant, improved experiences for our guests at all day parts pre-order during their ordering experience, and after. And the way we’re looking at the future is we know that Panera started off as a primarily a dinning business, and it was almost deliberately not drive through because of the separation intention from QSR. The reality is dining will still be a component of our business, but so much has shifted, but we’re thinking about, all right, of those people who do want to dine in, how do we make that as post-COVID relevant as possible?

George Hanson:
So we’re looking at things like contactless dining, where you don’t have to even touch a kiosk, you don’t have to talk to an associate, you can go right to your table, place an order, get a notification on your phone that it’s ready, you don’t have to hover waiting for your food or wondering when it’s up, it can be a bit more of a contactless experience if you want, if you choose, you don’t have to choose. So it’s really about expanding options and being really thoughtful about how guests want to… They still want to come, we’re finding people coming wanting to come back and connect with people and Panera is a place where people do that. And so there still will be a role there, but fortunately, we have a lot of ways that we enable people to enjoy us. And so really, wherever the guest flexes, we want to make sure it’s the best experience possible and data and analytics is is really a means to an end, not an end goal for us.

Alicia Kelso:
Okay, and so one thing that has kind of stuck out to me during this entire conversation is I always think of data as this really complex, this big bowl of spaghetti. Where do you start? How do you even know where to start? Joel, I’m going to rely on you to answer that question because now, we know that brands have had to rely on data even more than they’ve ever had in the past year. And so it can be especially daunting given that acceleration. So in your opinion do they have the resources to act on this relatively new science, and where should they start?

Dr. Joel Davis:
Yeah, so I’m going to reiterate something I said, they should always start with what they have, and start there and make decisions with what they have, and then continually learn. I think we heard that both from J.T and George, that the goal was to make a decision to move forward to measure the impact of that decision, and then make another decision and keep rolling forward, and I think that’s where all brands should start. When it comes to whether they have the resources, I think every brand does, because I think every brand that’s still around today has people that know how to run their business, they know how to connect with their customers. Some of them better than others, obviously, but those brands have people in them that they can make decisions based on the data that’s sitting right in front of them, whether that be the customer count at the end of the day that’s coming out of their registers, or really sophisticated analytics or business intelligence tools. So I think starting with what they have is a really good… It’s really good idea to start where you are.

Dr. Joel Davis:
I think larger brands have a slight advantage in terms of their ability to test more different scenarios, they can have a deeper bench of analytic talent that can run down some of these ideas that George and J.T were talking about, and then measure the outcome of those. That can be a little bit slower in brands that don’t have that kind of talent. They either need to go outside the brand and hire someone to help them with that, or just accept that they’re going to move a little bit slower. But I think it can be challenging to find the right people. Really when you’re talking about something like a Planet Fitness, it’s interesting to me that J.T, you came in with a really outside perspective as a change agent. And were able to make all these digital changes, especially in the last year, which is really challenging.

Dr. Joel Davis:
And it is probably inherent in the business to look outside sometimes. I look at the restaurant industry and I see there’s a lot of experience in running restaurants and operations, but there’s not a lot of experience or deep experience in digital transformation. And I think that they probably need to go a little bit outside in some cases and find some of that talent and bring it in. And again, I’m not just talking about data scientists and analytics experts, although I certainly think some brands need those. They also need people that know how to use that information to best serve their guests.

Jeremy Tucker:
I think the other piece is also just staying curious, Joel. I think that this path that we’re on and all of our businesses is going to require continuous reinvention and a learning mindset, because whatever we know today is different than what we will know the future. God knows my plans of coming into Planet and I had this amazing onboarding plan for myself of what we’re going to do in the first year and that completely get disruptive. I think we all have to stay nimble. And I think that it just goes back to the conversation on data. Joel was like, just start, and don’t be scared, lean into it, embrace what you don’t know, surround yourself with people who can help you, find those resources. There’s so much online that you can go and find and learn about, be inspired by, whether it’s conversations like this or what may.

Jeremy Tucker:
The other thing is, don’t be afraid to let go and to move forward, not to say you always throw out the kitchen sink and start again, but continuous refinement and improvements is also something that will help accelerate the journey. And perfect example, you heard me talk about the United We Move and we launched it a year ago in March, tonight on our social media is our final one. Literally, you’re looking at me like, why the heck would you do that? Well, we’re watching our member, we’re watching where they’re going and the adoption of our app, and then going on to the app as a tool to engage with us and use that with their fitness journey is where they’re moving and pivoting, so we’re moving and pivoting with them.

Jeremy Tucker:
And so you have to even look at some of the things that are the most successful and realize you got to let the member and the experience lead you, and let the data help guide you, and reinforce that and validate it. And then you just have to put that strategic filter on and say, “Is this something that we should do for the business? Is it right for the member?” And if the answer is yes, then you’d go. And nine times out of 10 that’s going to lead you on the best path, you got the data to back it up, but you can’t be afraid to evolve when the data shows you to go a different direction. And I’m doing it tonight so I guess we should do a follow up and find out if I made the right choice or not six months from now, but it’s leading us to a path to say this is where we should go. And again, you just never stop. It’s always, always, always pushing.

Dr. Joel Davis:
The curiosity thing is interesting. I look at a lot of brands and a purely digital brand will come up with an idea and there’s some really smart people within their brand will come up with an idea and a purely digital brand will test that idea tonight and learning something about it by tomorrow. And I’ve worked with brands that aren’t as digital savvy, they’ll come up with an idea and they’ll test that next summer. And it’s just the difference between those brands and how fast they can learn can have a huge impact on their business.

Jeremy Tucker:
Fail fact.

Alicia Kelso:
It does make me wonder because those decisions have to come from somewhere. And so does that ability to be nimble and more agile now, does that affect what skills executives have to have in having these decisions to be made? So, Joan, I mean, that’s your area of expertise. If we’re never going back, what skills are going to be most critical for executives as it applies to all these conversations, and further, can brands build these skills in the organizations, or do you think they need to hire in experts?

Joan Ray:
Yeah, so, excellent point about the agility. And as I mentioned earlier, that’s one of the things companies are measuring when they evaluate candidates today is they’re trying to get a sense of their ability to learn quickly and are looking for evidence that they’ve done that in the past, certainly technology, literacy, staying abreast of new developments, and as J.T said that mindset around continuous improvement, those are all key characteristics that all leaders are going to need existing and incoming.

Joan Ray:
As Joel mentioned, the shift in the emphasis towards analytics data and technology does have an impact on culture and forward-looking cultures attract forward-looking technology savvy people who want to work for these cultures. So as part of the talent recruitment efforts, companies need to promote this new culture as part of their employment proposition. And this is something that we get called on at Elliott all the time to help candidates are looking for companies with progressive cultures, and progressive cultures are looking for talented people.

Joan Ray:
Now, will companies need to hire a new talent? In many cases, I think there are skills that can be learned and perpetuated throughout the organization and subsequently the culture. This may have some implications organizationally in terms of training and development, and it may entail bringing in learning and development specialists to help teach these new skills. In other circumstances, new positions will be created that will require recruiting talent with new skills often from other industries which I think is just healthy for whether you’re in the restaurant space or the fitness space, it’s healthy for the organization’s DNA to bring in new blood from time to time. Whatever the case we can be certain the speed of change will continue to be fast and as long as companies continue to evolve and learn we’ll all continue to move forward.

Alicia Kelso:
Right and as you guys know, I’ve been covering the restaurant industry for about 11 years and it’s always been a narrative that the restaurant industry has been notoriously behind in tech adoption, and relative to retail especially so obviously that has had to change. So I know that all of you have backgrounds in other industries and I would just like to end with a quick summation from your guys’ perspectives. Given that you guys all have experience working in different industries what in your opinion, do you think that the restaurant industry specifically can learn from other industries in regards to this topic and vice versa? And George, I want to start with you because you’re fairly new to the industry yourself so how would you answer that question?

George Hanson:
Yeah, I think coming from specialty retail, retailers are excellent at the front end of driving demand, personalizing a lot of the front end, experiences across web app. So demand generation and product introduction on the front end is really, I think where retail specialty retail shines, and I think the restaurant industry can learn a lot and is quickly catching up for sure, behind, but quickly catching up. I think what I’ve learned coming into the restaurant space is how incredibly complex the restaurant industry is on the back end relative to retail.

George Hanson:
So not only do you have the complexity of day parts, which really doesn’t matter when you’re shopping for a dress or for shoes you have in our case 2100 cafes that operate as a community center, and as a independent manufacturing plant, producing people’s custom made order that they want in five minutes. That’s an incredibly complex supply chain and backend and then couple that with fulfillment, whether it be drive through, pick up in cafe, pick up at curbside, a part of a catering order, a group order, and then you think about food unlike a shirt which can sit in a warehouse for three months, the food has to get to the guests within a few minutes to be optimal.

George Hanson:
So the complexity on the fulfillment and the operational end, I think retailers and how to deal with that and how to make that guest experience is good as it can be. I think retail can learn a lot from restaurants or at least some of the leading restaurants that have really brought end to end digital experience.

Alicia Kelso:
J.T, what do you think?

Jeremy Tucker:
Yeah, it’s interesting as I think about that question. I think that when I think about food industry, I think about some of the things about the customer, like food brings us together, food brings us joy, and food actually provides utility, it fuels us, it makes us [inaudible 00:49:10]. But I think that the difference is if you take those basics which the industry and the men and women who lead the industry are going to stand much better than I will, and you say, “What is the experience today? And what’s missing? And how can digital intersect that?” That’s where I think the retail operations piece of some of the things starts talking about is really interesting because how do you trigger and book demand? How do you satisfy the demand from the operations perspective?

Jeremy Tucker:
Especially if I want to be a part of a community around the people I’m with, but not necessarily with the people I’m checking out with or whatnot. And how do I get you to go back for a repeat, because that’s something that you drive as well in this world of experience and variety. And what are the data signals that can help me know how to do that and how far to spread, because there’s a difference between what I’ve seen in other and even within my own gems. Sometimes there’s unique experiences in novelty, but then there’s also the need for, I want a piece where I can within a range of variety but tried and true because I’m comfortable to know what to expect.

Jeremy Tucker:
And I am thinking about this emergence that we have as we’re getting to this new normal, what to expect and what is that, and are there ways to understand that within that category and to help offset any barriers that I have that can help me get it? So I’m not giving you specifics that are pretty academic right now, but this is just some of the questions that I would ask myself if I were in those roles to kind of start exploring, because if I look to how retail has started to emerge, especially online retail, but look how we’ve done with gems, and look how car ordering has shifted, or even ownership has shifted in the last year or so, consumers are willing to take a step that maybe we wouldn’t have given them credit for.

Jeremy Tucker:
And I don’t know what those are, but I would want to find those out because if I can figure those out, that’s where I think there’s a lot of money to be made and I’m being completely academic right now. So I’m way out of my seat, but that would be some of the things that I would look at.

Alicia Kelso:
And Joan, what do you think here?

Joan Ray:
I think from a restaurant industry perspective the pandemic brought the very important lesson, that technology is a necessity. It is not just an indulgence when we have a few extra dollars and innovation has to be a part of the day-to-day for restaurant companies. The one thing about restaurants that I believe is somewhat unique is that we are still a people business. And I think maybe what other businesses can learn from us is that high touch and high tech have to combine together to really create a winning formula. And I think it’s important for us in restaurants too not to forget high touch. Very important.

Alicia Kelso:
Great. Joel, I’m going to end with you.

Dr. Joel Davis:
That’s a tricky question. So far I think it’s like all the answers were already given them. One thing I would say is that I think every industry likes to lament that it’s behind every other industry in something or everything. It’s easier to look across the water and see that someone else is doing much better at something. And its most basic when I look at the restaurant industry versus something like online retail. Online retail you have to crush digital right away in order to succeed, you’ve got to kill it.

Dr. Joel Davis:
In restaurants, in order to succeed, you have to start with really good food and it’s going to be delivered hot and people have to like it. And then both of those things just have to kind of close the gap, those retailers have to close the gap and make good products that people want to wear, and restaurants have to be able to deliver those in ways that people want to order them through different channels.

Dr. Joel Davis:
So I think this is a journey that every industry is on in a slightly different directions. I don’t see the restaurant industry as being fundamentally behind in terms of data analytics decision making. I think they’re pretty well on par with the other industries that I’ve looked at anyways in my research. I think what sometimes happens is they fail to give themselves credit for what they do really, really well than other industries don’t.

Jeremy Tucker:
So the only thing I think I would end with is going back to what I’ve seen through this COVID fatigue and through the sentiment for men and women, is this pent up need for escape, to be inspired again, to get out again, to feel alive again, and I think that the restaurant industry has a very unique role again, thinking about the cultural perspective of food, of what it can do, and what it means to us. And we haven’t had that for a year and a half at scale.

Jeremy Tucker:
So yes, I think that we can look at it. Joel, I agree with you is like don’t limit being behind, do what you do best, embrace that, find ways to make it better with the technology and the data, and break down the barriers, the friction points. I mean, that’s the thing that tech can… This is a great enabler. This is the thing that I don’t want to talk to someone if I want to do something, this is the thing that sets it right. So if you can work that in and then stay true to what the experience is, especially in this moment right now, especially with what we’re seeing as we’re emerging carefully as a culture, I think that this could be a really phenomenal time of innovation in the category.

Alicia Kelso:
I love that and I will take the silver lining J.T, I will take the silver lining any day. So I appreciate ending on that note that is all I’ve got on this topic. And I want to sincerely thank each of you for this conversation. Obviously, it’s a complex topic and you guys did such a great job distilling it down in an interesting way, so thank you. And thanks to everybody who joined us today on this episode of Revenue Stream with RMS. You can find a link to this and other installments of Revenue Stream on revenuemanage.com or on RMS’s social media channels. Thanks, everyone.

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