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Jen Gulvik

Justin Watkins

July 2015

Jen is a builder of brands, buzz and customer love as Houlihan’s SVP, Marketing / Creative Director. Her background in consumer trends, brand strategy and creative marketing has helped Houlihan’s win over new fans and elevate their product. It’s no surprise she’s counted as one of KC’s most influential women in business.

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Let’s start by putting on our analytical hats. What exciting things are you doing with customer data?

Look at that. You just used ‘exciting’ and ‘data’ in the same sentence! Data has changed the face of our marketing this past year. We have a new CRM platform that integrates transaction data from our POS system with ‘tokenized’ credit card data and our large email customer database. Combining those three sources, we can do things like communicate differently to recent vs. lapsed customers or based on what they typically spend or buy; we can also look at our menu mix by once-per-year customers vs. 5 visits-per-year customers to guide our menu decisions, for example. We know the visit cadence of guests, so we analyze both the immediate impact of promotions and again, six months later to see guests’ visit patterns after coming in with a promotional offer. Did we cannibalize an expected full-priced visit with the offer? Improve their visit cadence after that offer? It’s a truer ROI.

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You embraced social media earlier than most in your industry. How are these channels continuing to help you reach your audience?

Social media channels are all launching ad platforms that leverage customer data, and we’re all over it! Today I can serve an ad for Houlihan’s new gluten-sensitive menu to someone searching Pinterest for such recipes in Kansas City. I can serve an ad promoting rehearsal dinners at Bristol to area wedding planners on LinkedIn. Or advertise via Foursquare’s new Pinpoint technology to someone who’s currently on their phone within our trade area searching for happy hour, who has previously visited a competitor location. We don’t have the footprint to make sense of a reach-based media strategy and could never out-shout the big brands in mass media, so highly targeted digital media is our jam. By staying atop new media and trying these platforms early, when inventory is plentiful and the big advertisers wait-and-see, our costs are lower. It’s how we compete.

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Back to the creative side. How do you and the concept teams innovate around the customer experience? Do you look at other service industries for ideas?

We also look to retail, hotel, luxury brands and other service industries that may teach us something about what consumers expect and experience from a service standpoint. We think about the guest from the time they park (or valet) and enter, what service is like, how the place should look-and-feel, music, uniforms, menu design, in-store merchandising, the food & bev itself…all of that; not just the advertising we produce internally. Everyone feels personally responsible for the brands and feels they have a say in what we do with them—they know I’ll champion their idea to the top if it’s well-thought-out and right for the brand. But we are also purposeful about idea generation. We have an innovation breakfast every two months and the whole marketing, creative and internal comms team brings their A-game. We have yet to have one of those breakfasts without at least one new idea being rolled out. I have such a talented and passionate team. The very idea for innovation breakfasts came from our digital strategist, and she made it happen.

Occasionally we do R&D trips where we eat & drink our way around a city in a few days. We’ll hit 10-15 restaurants & bars and visit different hotels and retailers, check out merchandising and design that consumers are being exposed to elsewhere. The creative team has a monthly stipend to make sure they’re seeing what’s going on out there, and experiencing for themselves things our fine dining customers experience with other brands, for example. We’re constantly sharing articles, pictures, ideas among our whole team; but nothing beats experiencing it and you’ve got to budget for R&D and continual learning to foster innovation in a trend-driven industry such as ours.

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How will the Houlihan’s brand and customer be different in 5 years?

We’re in a process of moving Houlihan’s out of casual dining and into the polished casual segment, and we’ll be fully there in less than 5 years. We’ll have a higher check average that will allow us to attract an employee base that’s more educated and passionate about food, bev and hospitality. I also see more local sourcing on the menu — we do minimal local sourcing in the Houlihan’s concept today, only with produce and alcoholic bevs. And we should have a lot more locations in five years as we grow the concept.

As for the customer, there’s a groundswell of consumer demand for cleaner food without a bunch of crap going into their bodies. Our food is pretty clean as we cook from scratch, but the food & bev industry and entire supply chain in America is at a tipping point. Ten years from now we’ll hardly recognize how food is produced and brought to us today. Consumer knowledge and curiosity about food is only going to increase. That knowledge is power, and that’s a good thing.

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What is your latest epiphany?

“Culture eats strategy for lunch.” We recently hired a firm to conduct employee research, and our consultant shared that phrase. You can have the most brilliant, differentiating strategy in the world, but if your people don’t understand it, feel valued and like they’re part of it, good luck carrying it out.

Interviews with KC Makers & Marketers