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CULT BRAND: Ellie Doty, CMO at Chili's

How does a Cult Brand lose its luster? Losing Cult Brand status and then making a comeback is not an easy task.

Ellie Doty, CMO of Chili's Grill and Bar, tells a brand story that ends in a hashtag. Yes, I said a hashtag! Oh, and Cheesman sucks-up to one of his favorite eating destinations like never before. It's embarrassing.

Supported by SmashFly, big believers in building relationships with brands, not jobs. Let SmashFly help tell your story and keep relationships at the heart of your CRM.


Disability Solutions helps companies strengthen their workforce and broaden their market reach by hiring talent in the disability community.

Chris Kneeland: Hi everybody. This is Chris Kneeland, the CEO of Cult Collective and the co-founder of The Gathering of Cult Brands. Excited today to introduce you to Ellie Doty. Ellie is the marketing bigwig over at Brinker International. Brinker is best known for Chili's Bar & Grill and Maggiano's, two beloved American chain restaurants.

Chris Kneeland: What I love so much about Ellie is, as I've gotten to know her over the past couple of years, is she's been on a journey. Sort of migrating from more traditional advertising and marketing communications to embracing audience engagement and cult brand principles. Really using her budget, her resources, her clout, her credentials and the C suite there at Brinker to get the organization to think differently about HR issues, about products and services, about customer segmentation, and really becoming a very sophisticated marketing organization. I'm sure she's going to have a lot of great things to share with us.

Announcer: Hide your kids. Lock the doors. You're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts, complete with breaking news, brash opinion, and loads of snark. Buckle up boys and girls. It's time for the Chad and Cheese Podcast.

Chad: Yeah.

Joel: I really need an old timer with cheese right about now. Hello everybody. Welcome to the Chad and Cheese Podcast. I'm Joel Cheesman.

Chad: I am Chad Sowash. Welcome to another installment of our cult brand series of podcasts. Joel and I are working closely with The Gathering of Cult Brands. You know, the best branding and marketing event in the world.

Joel: The cult.

Chad: To bring discussions around how companies become or remain cult brands. Today is a Joel Cheesman interview for the ages.

Joel: That's right. We're going to be talking about meal kits from Taco Bell.

Chad: Today we have Ellie Doty on. Ellie, you got to allow me to do this kind of like this bottom-up, LinkedIn kind of intro to you. Ellie was brand and fielding marketing manager at Long John Silver's. She was a senior brand manager at Taco Bell, CMO for Kentucky Fried Chicken Canada, director of marketing at KFC, big KFC, VP of marketing and culinary at Chili's, and today she is the SVP head of marketing at Chili's. Yes.

Joel: We're not worthy. We're not worthy. We're not worthy.

Chad: Ellie, what did we miss here? This is pretty amazing. We're going to get into this, but what did we miss?

Ellie: No. You got it. You nailed the high points. I've been at Chili's for about two years now, and head up the marketing function over here. Probably the biggest part you missed was one of my favorite times which was with KFC Global out of Plano, Texas. Just an amazing experience working on KFC Global. A huge business outside of the US, so that was a really fun chapter.

Joel: I used to be employed by KFC. A little known fact about me.

Ellie: Really? What did you do for KFC?

Chad: Chicken guy.

Joel: I made Chicken Littles back in the 80s if you can believe that.

Chad: Before we get into Chili's brand journey, I've got one question. Your last job was VP marketing and culinary. What in the hell? Marketing and culinary. I want to know how those two fit together?

Ellie: Well, the better question, how do they not fit together?

Joel: Boom.

Ellie: What an exciting job that was for me there. I had never run a culinary function before, but actually at that time a new executive chef for Chili's started the same day I did in marketing on my team. We came in at a real turnaround time for Chili's, having faced several years worth of traffic declines. We faced a menu revolution

that needed to happen. That's why marketing and culinary were together.

Ellie: I needed to take another look from the chips and salsa and ranch, all the way to the Molten Cakes, and see is this the right menu for Chili's to have, and are we living up to our founding promises around it's a pretty simple menu. It's burgers and tacos and fajitas and margaritas and throw in some ribs. That was one of the reasons those were together at that time. What should this menu be?

Joel: Hey, don't downplay ribs and chicken fingers. Let's not do that. One of the themes that we get in this series has been companies finding their why. Why do you exist? I'm wondering if you had a similar journey and what did you land on in terms of what is the WHY of Chili's and other restaurants you've worked for.

Ellie: Yeah. We definitely did. At Chili's when I started I learned that there's a saying that we love each other and we like our guest. Chili's has been really into, we're really into ourselves. In fact, team members at Chili's are called Chili Heads for their devotion to the brand and the fun we have in the restaurants at the RSC. We love each other like family. It was definitely something that it's kind of the reverse problem a lot of brands see where they lack the soul and the heartbeat of meaning behind why they exist, and have to create that from the inside out.

Ellie: For Chili's, on the flip side when I started the first task was tap in to what already exists, and bring the guest to that party. We did a lot of that work last year, and we're starting to see some of that show up in some of our marketing channels. We got very focused on our menu, eliminated a lot of the extra thing. In fact, we cut 40% of our menu items in the first year that I was part of the Chili's brand.

Ellie: We had a really strong why around boldness and togetherness. We shorthand it Bolder Together. We're now living that, have been working on living that for the last few months. As you said, we're on the journey. We're on the journey to bring it to the guest.

Chad: Does Chili's see itself as a cult brand now or are you on that journey? Does the journey stop or is it never completed?

Ellie: I think the journey never stops. Chili's used to be a cult brand, I would say. Its founding principles on Greenville Avenue with a shorthand written menu and just some guys who put stuff on the menu they thought were cool, like what's a fajita? I don't know. They put a pronunciation guide on the menu. Things like that are how Chili's was founded, but I think over the course of going into 32 different countries and 1,500 restaurants, and being part of a giant, becoming a giant can sometimes take away some of those cult founding principles. Now, we have the task of how do you be mass and cult at the same time.

Chad: Well, cutting 40% of the menu, I think, is genius because I know going into Chili's before it took me so long to actually find something. Then when the menu was actually cut down, it was like, "Okay. Now I know exactly what I want." It was so much quicker. For guys like Joel who actually pronounced it fajita, thank you so much. Yeah. Thank you so much.

Joel: That's low.

Ellie: Low blow. Yeah.

Joel: Just don't get rid of the buffalo chicken sandwich anytime soon.

Ellie: Yeah. That thing is delicious.

Joel: Yes it is.

Chad: You have what you call an MVP. Your mission, vision and

passion. We saw that not just on the actual website but on the employment area of the website. When you start to take a look at your mission, your vision and your passion, that obviously starts with the employees. How do you get that ingrained into your employees? How does that start? Because that's got to be the hardest part.

Ellie: The first place is actually we have Chili's-wide, brandwide cultural beliefs. There are four of them. We have four key cultural beliefs, and that's really where it starts, if we have these shared beliefs that we all buy into. We support those beliefs on a daily basis through storytelling, recognition, live experiences we create.

Ellie: I'm sure you guys have heard lots of times many, many companies have recognition cards. Well ours have our cultural beliefs at the top of the card, and you recognize somebody for living that cultural belief. That's where it starts from the inside out. Then all of those cultural beliefs are backed up in every single restaurant. That's what you get recognized for in restaurant. That's what the recognition boards in the back of the restaurant say. Really I think it starts from those foundational beliefs.

Joel: One of the topics that we cover on the show quite a bit that cover both employment and just branding in general is the diversity and inclusion, recruiting both people of diverse backgrounds but also having customers as such. Do you find that you've meshed those two together in terms of your advertising, or your social media to make sure that not only are you tracking a diverse customer, but also potentially diverse candidates to apply for jobs and work for Chili's?

Ellie: Yes. For sure. It's incredibly important to Chili's. In fact, we believe inclusion is one of our top values. Inclusiveness in our workforce, inclusiveness in our dining rooms. That's a journey that we're always on. One that we're working on right now is just one of the foundational reasons people love to come to Chili's, is because in their words they say it's a "come as you are" kind of place.

Ellie: Whoever you're with, whatever you were doing right before, however your kids act, you're welcome at Chili's. Kick back. Let your hair down. Have a good time.

Joel: That's what I'm talking about. That's why I wear sweatpants every time I go to Chili's.

Ellie: You're welcome to.

Chad: That's why I eat in the bar, so I don't have to hear your kids yelling. Back to the MVP real quick. Mission is awesome. Delivering burgers 'Ritas, fajitas, that's for Joel, and 'Ritas like no place else. The vision, Chili's Love by 2020. What is Chili's Love exactly?

Ellie: Chili's Love is a, well, it started as a hashtag on Twitter, and it is one that we started really in our people channel, so our team members or people who are Chili Heads really start saying #chilislove to whatever they tweet about what we're doing. Interestingly saw it really catch on. We can't really put marketing efforts behind it. We didn't try to make it into a thing. Our guests started to latch on to this, and so then they would tag themselves with #chilislove.

Ellie: We said, you know, we need to make this true. We need to make it go beyond a hashtag, and just that people are wanting this from us. Our guests are rooting for us, and they want us to show up in a #chilislove kind of way. We set that as our vision. Well, we really want that. Instead of our vision being something like a sales revenue goal, or a number of restaurants we've built goal, what if it was a love goal?

Chad: That started grassroots from your employees and then it actually stemmed out to the guests.

Ellie: Yes. It was one of those fun things where you tap into something people really, it's sort of inadvertently, but that they want you to do. Now we make a pretty significant effort not to start too many new hashtags.

Chad: Well, that actually ties into your passion, making people feel special. Obviously people who are feeling special are going to use a hashtag. They wouldn't be using a hashtag any other way, right?

Ellie: Right. Right. Hopefully not. I guess they could. We're hoping they do though. If you're feeling Chili's Love, you're feeling special.

Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minute. Building a brand isn't easy, which is why you need people like Thom Kenney, CEO of SmashFly on your side.

Joel: Thom, there are a lot of companies out there that are small. What do you tell those companies that say, "We're too small to worry about having a cult brand from an employment perspective"?

Thom Kenney: I'd say do you know how many people WhatsApp had when they got acquired by Facebook? 13. Now if that's not a small company, they got a billion-dollar valuation and a billion-dollar acquisition. They know how important it is to have that cult brand mentality. Nobody really understood just how few employees there were with WhatsApp, but look at the following that they had. Look at what they created. They did it mostly because they had really great people. They didn't need a ton of great people. They just needed a really good core team.

Thom Kenney: When WhatsApp and 13 people is thinking about, "Well, you know what, I need one more engineer," that cult brand of WhatsApp is like that one engineer, they've one engineering position, they've probably got 10,000 applicants just for that one engineering position. If you think you're too small, then you're probably too small to really get big anyway, because you're thinking small.

Thom Kenney: If you think big and you think about what do I need to do to create that critical mass that I need in the market to be able to have a really, really great product or service. If I'm creating that cult brand for me, just think of what that's going to do for my recruiting.

Chad: To find out more, go to

Joel: I feel the Chili's Love every time I'm there. You guys have embraced technology for quite a while now. I know that you guys were one of the first national chains to embrace the kiosk at the table, ordering from this kiosk, giving your kids games to play while you're waiting for your extra chips and salsa refresh to be brought to you. How does technology play into the brand as a whole, maybe from an employments perspective, social media? You guys have really embraced technology early on, and how do you look to use that now? Maybe what platforms are you seeing for the future as being a really hot Tik Tok in the future of your marketing strategy?

Ellie: Tech and tech innovation are a key priority of ours. It's if you named of three or four things that are really important at Chili's, that's definitely hits that shortlist. As you said, we did get out ahead of the curve. Some of the things that I would mention that you didn't in terms of marketing are around we really made some pretty significant shifts away from mass marketing in mass channels, and into much more personalized ways to interact with our brand.

Ellie: As an example, we've pretty dramatically increased our commitment to CRM and loyalty programs. Ours is called My Chili's Rewards, and every time you use it or identify you get free chips and salsa, or a free NA bev. It's super simple. Moved away from any kind of complicated point systems and made sure that our guests felt special every time they let us know that they were there.

Ellie: We also pay a lot of attention to our online ordering, our OLO platform, so that it's as frictionless as it can possibly be. We're pretty proud of our app development and web ordering development. In fact, 60% of our orders come through those channels now, which is great. That's where we want them to be. Our guests have amazing experiences there. We get rave reviews on it.

Ellie: We stay out ahead of that. In fact we've just launched that favorites option, so that if you've ordered from us before you can click it, and all your favorites with your preferences go into your basket. That's all it takes. One of the beautiful things about Chili's is that you can customize everything, get it just exactly the way you want it. That also means it can take a little while to order it if you want to customize it every time. Now we can remember it for you, no worries. You get your same order.

Joel: Will I be able to say, "Hey, Alexa. Bring me Chili's tonight," and it'll bring me my favorite from Chili's? Is that coming soon?

Ellie: I'm sure someday that will be true. That's not something that's happening right now. Voice ordering, it's going to happen.

Joel: Fingers crossed.

Chad: Joel wants to walk into a Chili's, have his face recognized, and by the time he walks over to the table he has his meal ordered. That's what Joel wants.

Joel: Joel just wants Chili's to move in with me, so I don't have to leave the house ever.

Chad: Back to the tech. When that first came out, yeah, it was great for the kids to play games. It was great for the actual customer, I think. What about for the employees? What about for the individual who's waiting, serving on the table? Is that something that they embraced, or did it take a little time for them to really gel with the technology on the table?

Ellie: No. For the most part it's embraced. It's got a number of benefits for the servers. I think one of the biggest benefits to mention is we get real-time feedback from the guests on how their experience was. That makes it a lot easier to make them feel special in a really detailed way. If you don't have that technology, the way we were before, and a way, I know, some of our competitors are, is you have to count on people to contact you either through a phone call or otherwise on their receipt. That way you just really don't get enough or detailed enough information. We value a lot the amount of info we get about the experience that people have.

Ellie: We are able to improve and train our servers on the basis of that feedback. For example, if we have a lot of guests with a problem for a certain shift at a certain time, we're able to coach against what might have been going on. What was causing those problems, and really improve that shift to shift to shift. The other thing it does that's really cool is you can pay right at the table. That's a great benefit for the guest and for the server, because the server spends a lot of time walking those checks back and forth.

Chad: I bet.

Ellie: They don't have to do that.

Chad: We'll get back to the interview in a minute, but first a quick question for Chris Kneeland about The Gathering of Cult Brands. Chris, why is The Gathering of Cult Brands so important?

Chris Kneeland: Well, because these are stories that I don't think are being told. If you look at just the marketing and advertising space much less the traditional HR or employee engagement space, we're just not telling the right kinds of stories. We don't have the right kinds of role models. The Academy Awards for the marketing industry is probably the Cannes Festival. That's just this celebration of creativity. It's not tethered to business performance. It's not tethered to audience engagement. It's just tethered to who had a good fun idea. We see that as rampant in the marketing industry.

Chris Kneeland: What we wanted to do was to find a platform where brands who are doing the right things for the right reasons. You know what, they may not even be advertisers. Costco, Kiehl's, Lululemon, brands like this don't ever go to those other kinds of shows, because they're not telling creative paid media campaigns and they're not doing Super Bowl commercials. This is their home and the chance for them to get the recognition they deserve.

Chad: Register now at

Joel: Restaurants have a unique situation where most of the people that interview there, a customer there as well. How much direct contact or activity do you have with the recruiting process to make sure that when someone interviews at Chili's they don't have a bad experience and say, "I'm never going back to Chili's. I'm going to tell my friends that I had a bad interview at Chili's"? For example, do you give coupons for anyone who interviews, saying, "Thank you for your time. Please come back and enjoy a free app on us," or something like that?

Ellie: I don't know the answer to that specific question about if we give anybody anything for interviewing. However, I will say that we have a whole program, it's called Higher Train Retain, and it's a 360 program around our branded interview process, hiring process, and retaining process. It all works together in terms of the value proposition we're bringing to our employees.

Ellie: We happen to work in a category where hundreds of thousands of people have at one point or another worked there. How the Chili Heads or former Chili Heads or possible Chili Heads feel about the brand is big. It's a sizable group of people. We not only want to make the guests feel special, but we do want to make all of our Chili Heads feel special too. It's a strength of ours.

Ellie: We definitely pay a lot of attention to ensuring their experiences are great. One recent piece of headway we made there was around the first week training. We got a lot more prescriptive about what happens in the first week for somebody being hired, because that's when they are at the highest risk of having a bad experience at a Chili's. If you just imagine you start on a Friday night and you get thrown in to dish, you don't know what you're doing. You're not sure who these people are. You're not going to get any tips that night. It's not a great first-off experience, but sometimes that's what happens because it's Friday night and it's busy. We just take a much more thoughtful approach to how you start off on your first day, first week.

Chad: Do you have a team that manages that process? Because I would assume, I mean how many franchises do you have out there?

Ellie: We're by and large company owned. We own most of our restaurants. It's about 25% franchise owned. That's held by three big owners.

Chad: Got you. I think here in Columbus, Indiana, where I live is actually a franchise. I could be wrong. Do you have somebody that actually manages those franchises to ensure that they have the same brand standards? Because I would assume that would be a little bit harder to manage the brand and the experience and obviously the Chili Heads and everything like that, to be able to seem like one family.

Ellie: It is. It is. Of course, across the thousand restaurants that we own, that Chili's runs and operates we are able to make sure that we are living up to those standards in all thousand of those restaurants. In our franchise restaurants, we do have coaching and support teams to help ensure they are aware of and know how to use all the programs, are deploying them where they can. We make custom versions of them if they need them based on what their business dynamics are.

Joel: Employee reviews are something that we talk about on the show quite a bit. I know in your line of work Yelp reviews, Google reviews, anywhere people are spouting off about the company as a customer, good or bad, is something that I'm sure you keep your thumb on to make sure that people are having a good experience, and that you're engaging with those folks.

Joel: Do you pay much attention to the employer side of reviews? I think that we're seeing a little bit of the two bleeding together with social media and particularly video in the format of Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok where employees even are going on and talking about the secrets of the company, what it's like to work there, why you would or wouldn't want to work there. Is that something that you guys are

conscious of? If so, how are you managing and monitoring that?

Ellie: It is something we're conscious of. I will say we don't spend a lot of our energies around the employee reviews, just because we're pretty focused on the guest. We have our own internal channels to hear from our employees. Usually we hear the bulk of what we need to from our employees through those channels. It's not a main source of information on public channels.

Ellie: We love for our teams to post about their Chili's experiences. However, if they're having a challenge we have channels for them to reach out to us directly to address what might be going on. We do have some social media policies around how we engage on the Chili's brand, whether we work for the brand or we're posting on behalf of the brand.

Chad: What kind of advice would you give a company looking to start this cult brand journey? It's ominous as it is to be able to take a look at even a small organization, but a big organization, and say, "How in the heck do I eat this elephant?" What bite should they take first?

Ellie: I think it all starts with knowing who you are. At Chili's that's been one of the challenges over the course of the last, say, decade or so. Who are we and where did we start, and how is that relevant today? It may sound super-obvious to say who are we in that way, but I have had some super-smart people to say if a brand is losing its way, look back to look forward. I believe that was a Coca-Cola-

Chad: That's good.

Ellie: Yeah. I think that came from Coke. It's a good one. It's a good source. That's what we did at Chili's is look back to look forward. I think sometimes when I was coming on board at Chili's and learning about our past efforts, especially with a 45-year-old brand there's hardly anything that hasn't been tried before. It's not about a new idea. It's about new days, new people, a new way of looking at it.

Ellie: In this case there had been a number of different, "Oh, we're going to find our brand. We're going to know who we are." It was by being that thing over there. We're going to go become something else. Unfortunately, just as with human beings you're never going to be a world-class version of something else. You're only going to be a world-class version of who you are.

Ellie: Who you are as a brand, even if there's some aspects of it that seem like, "Well, that's not really relevant today," it's a huge mistake to go undo your greatest strengths to try to address your greatest weakness. That's one from KFC. The biggest criticism of KFC is that everything is fried. Well, yeah. Hell yeah, everything's fried at KFC.

Joel: You say that like it's a bad thing.

Ellie: Saying it like it's a bad thing. No. If you undo everything is fried, you undo one of the greatest strengths. I think this effort that we're making right now at Chili's is really about uncovering and living the real truth of the brand, first and foremost.

Joel: The gig economy is real. We talk about it a lot on the show. One of the latest numbers was by 2021 or 2 or 3 maybe 40 million Americans will be employed by the gig economy. I know that you guys embrace things like DoorDash and Uber Eats and basically contracting out the delivery of your food. Inevitably more and more of your employees will be contract or gig workers. Do you think about that? Is there a strategy around protecting the brand and the brand experience and using gig or contract workers to come in? Is it something that you think Chili's will stay away from in the

Ellie: No. We're actually having at the moment a great experience with DoorDash. A little over a month ago we entered into an inclusive arrangement with DoorDash, so we're only with them now. We have learned and our restaurants have learned that you want to be a brand of choice for dashers. In that gig economy there's all kinds of clients at play. We actually strive hard to help our restaurants learn how to be a great client to a dasher and how dashers are parts of our teams in a lot of ways. We seek to make them feel special too.

Ellie: In that way, you have this influence over the brand experience that's created by the dasher. I also think a couple of years ago there were all these conversations at restaurant chains about what happens with the food between the time it leaves the restaurant to the time it gets to the guest. You want to be able to control what that experience is like. Today our guests are so accustomed to in this situation, they get it. They know what a dasher is. They know that they've carried the food from the restaurant, so they understand the dynamics at play here.

Ellie: We have less concern over, not less concern over the quality of our food, but we feel confident that we can share, that we can make ourselves a great partnership with our dashers, so that we can all be part of a great guest experience at the end. Even if we're partnered together to get it done.

Joel: You could see a day where a restaurant would partner inclusively for workers to come in and work, so that they know that the brand is safe and that there's a relationship there, as opposed to multiple services delivering contract workers?

Ellie: Yeah. It could be. A lot of our workers participate in the gig economy too. They work at Chili's. They drive an Uber. Maybe they're a dasher. Many of our guests also participate in the gig economy. We have a target, our tribe we call it, our target guests of families, and we know that almost all of them have some kind of side gig of one kind or another. Nobody's just doing one single thing anymore. Knowing it's our guests, it's our team members, it's the people we partner with, everybody's part of this gig economy today.

Chad: Just another reason why you want and need to be a cult brand, right?

Ellie: Yeah. That's exactly right.

Chad: Well, Ellie, thank you so much for taking the time today. Again, Ellie Doty, head of marketing at Chili's talking more about the journey to becoming a cult brand, and back to being a cult brand. We appreciate it. We had a great time. Thanks Ellie.

Ellie: Thanks.

Joel: Bless you for the work you do every day, Ellie.

Chad: Bless you.

Joel: Thank you.

Ellie: You bet. Go get some Crispers.

Joel: Yeah. We out.

Chad: We out.

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