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