QSR Innovators: Schlotzsky’s VP & Head of Marketing Seth Freeman

Seth Freeman, VP and Head of Marketing at Focus Brand’s QSR chain Schlotzsky’s, discusses a new campaign, the evolution of drive-thru, and what the QSR category will look like as the world reopens.

When Seth Freeman joined Focus Brand’s QSR chain Schlotzsky’s as VP and Head of Marketing eight months ago, one of his goals was to help the brand update its purpose. A national brand with 350 locations, the Southwest-based fast-food chain doesn’t see itself as a traditional QSR.

“It’s more of an adventure,” explains Freeman. “If you want to live a more flavorful life, you should come to Schlotzsky’s. Schlotzsky’s is about nourishing unique moments worth savoring. When you eat a Schlotzsky’s sandwich, it’s abundant, it’s flavorful, it’s something you want to savor. We are tapping into that moment. It’s experiential.” 

The brand is well-known for its deli-style sandwiches, salads, and soups. The QSR chain looked to its consumer insights and found that people really resonate with this idea: When they eat well, their world is a better place. 

“The best example is Thanksgiving dinner, you eat it and you just want to chill out and fall asleep,” Freeman says. “Our brand promise is about making little moments more flavorful. Flavor is intrinsically part of who we are. Think about our sandwiches, they are so distinct compared to everything else that’s out there. The flavor is the key part of that, according to consumers.”

Schlotzsky’s fans also love that the company is unique and not a mainstream brand. The brand has incorporated these insights in its latest “It’s a Mouthful” campaign that also plays up the fact that the company’s name is hard to pronounce and difficult to spell.

“This campaign was really about capturing the best of what this brand is about,” Freeman insists.
“It’s a mouthful. It’s a combination of the flavor and abundance that you get with each of our delicious sandwiches, combined with the recognition of how difficult it is to say or spell our brand name. That’s what it’s about, the uniqueness of flavors coming together with this recognition. The essence of the campaign is that it’s hard to say, but easy to love.”

This year, Schlotzsky’s turns 50 and the brand is coming off of a good sales year, particularly at a time when consumers have been skipping indoor dining and turning to options that allow for drive-thru and online ordering. Drive-thru represented almost 60% of sales in the last year and the brand is expanding its drive-thru experience by testing two new drive-thru formats that are designed to improve the consumer experience.

Before joining Schlotzsky’s, Freeman was CMO of Buffalo Wild Wings. He has also held senior marketing positions at IHG, The Coca-Cola Company, and Russell Athletic. Brand Innovators caught up with Freeman from his office in Atlanta to discuss the new campaign, the evolution of drive-thru, and what the QSR category will look like as the world reopens. 

The new campaign plays up the abundance of your sandwiches by focusing on rich images of your large sandwiches. Can you talk about the elements at play in this story?

There are three key parts to the campaign overall. First, it’s about simplification. We have gone to great lengths to simplify what our fans love most about us: flavorful sandwiches, delicious pizzas, bountiful soups and salads. We have simplified our menu to make it even more impactful. Secondly, it is about accessibility. We have a new app platform. We have enhanced the online ordering experience with increased flexibility, making it easier to order food on our app or website. This is all with the intent of delivering on this savory experience, making it easier for you to get to us. 

Lastly, it’s about enhanced portions sizes and our being a more value-oriented proposition overall for consumers. We’ve been able to do that through our enhanced portion sizes and our national meat deals. This makes it more accessible, more valued, and easier for consumers to love. It also makes it easier operationally as well, as we have a great deal of drive-thrus, making it easier for consumers to order and for us to deliver on our promise. 

You have been experimenting with new drive thru formats as the channel has been huge during the pandemic. Can you talk about this plan?

Drive-thru has always been a part of our proposition. As you can imagine, during the pandemic when folks were trying to stay as safe as they possibly could, our drive-thru business increased to nearly 60% of our total sales and on-premise business. It’s always been a pretty significant piece of our business, and as we look at new prototypes, we will continue that and make sure drive-thrus are at the forefront of what we do. 

We won’t necessarily be losing our dine-in, but we will continue to focus on drive-thru with this notion of accessibility and making it easier for you to come and grab the Schlotzsky’s that you love. That’s at the heart of what we’re doing. We also want it to be more operationally feasible for our franchisees. Those things combined make up a really strong element of our proposition overall. We love our drive-thrus and they’ve been a really big part of our success formula over the past year.

Digital ordering has become hugely important in the QSR space over the last year. This campaign is running digitally. Can you talk about the importance of digital channels to your brand?

Digital is certainly a big piece of what we are doing. We’ve increased our working media by over 25%. We’ve done that for a few reasons. One, we knew we needed to break through more. We’ve got a new campaign that speaks to the essence of what we can bring and it was important that we leverage more working media. We have a big focus on digital because we knew we needed to continue to reignite demand and tap into our sizable loyalty base. Tapping into them to drive reactivation and frequency is at the core of our campaign overall. As you can imagine, digital enables us to reach them more effectively. We are finding that digital is nothing new, but it is newer for the Schlotzsky’s brand as we reach consumers to drive stronger engagement and reactivation, while also driving greater levels of frequency through our advanced multi-platform campaign. 

Before you joined Schlotzsky’s, you held senior marketing roles at Buffalo Wild Wings, IHG, and The Coca-Cola Company. What insights from your past experiences have you brought to your current role? 

I have been very fortunate to work at some amazing places throughout my career. There are probably three things which are a backdrop to my experiences. The first is around growing brands. I have been at Coca-Cola, IHG, and Inspire, a lot of really great brands. Growing brands has always been a key component of what I do, both large and small. At Coca-Cola, I went into innovation on some smaller brands (some of which still exist) and had the chance to also work on the main Coca-Cola brand and Dasani while also working on Gold Peak Tea and Full Throttle Energy Drink. As you think about the changing role of CMOs and marketing heads, it’s about growth. I have been able to capture that in my backdrop. 

Secondly, I lead teams. I love to be able to tap into what makes people tick and how to bring the best out of people. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work with great teams. I’m a coach in my spare time as well, so I try to bring my coaching style into what I do with my teams. Lastly, it’s about impacting culture. I’m a big believer in the notion that when you impact culture, you can grow your sales overall. Making sure that your brand is resonating culturally in a way to make it distinct and relevant for folks across the board. As a summary, it’s about growing brands, leading and relying on teams, and impacting culture. 

What are you doing in your current position to impact culture?

This past fall we did a ‘Work From Home’ promotion, where we used a person from the office and it was about tapping into the cultural moment of folks working from home and not getting to enjoy lunch in the way they used to. We’re a lunch provider, clearly as sandwiches have a big play in how people do lunch. But, working from home, folks weren’t able to do that. We thought, how do we tap into this moment culturally? With this work-from-home opportunity, we asked people to send us their pitiful-looking lunch and we would provide them with a free sandwich from Schlotzsky’s. That was the opportunity, tapping into culture. 

For a long time, this brand has been a part of the fabric of consumers and what they do and love. As we continue to grow, which is a big part of our strategy overall, we are making sure to maintain the essence of who we are, which we believe to be flavor, abundance, and originality. We will continue to grow those things and tap into culture, make sure we are at the intersection of culture in a way that’s super relevant going forward.

What will QSR look like over the next year as the world begins to open up more?

As you think about QSR in particular and the notion of convenience and safety, that continues to play a role in the everyday lives of our guests. Now folks are even more accustomed to getting through the drive-thru, contactless payment, and all the things that allow them to do what they want to do. I don’t think that component will change, it will continue to accelerate. 

But as things begin to open up, folks will want to go out as well. Dine-in will become more a part of our business as we go. There will be a stronger balance of convenience associated with drive-thru and pick up, balanced with folks who want to get out and come to Schlotzsky’s. Our offering allows us to play effectively right now and into the future. We are hopeful about the growth of the category overall. We are encouraged by the outlook of our brand within the context of the overall category.

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