QSR Innovators: Sonic Drive-In CMO Lori Abou Habib

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After being with Sonic Drive-In for more than thirteen years, Lori Abou Habib is almost four years into her role as the QSR company’s chief marketer. She is deeply rooted in the brand as the company has navigated its way into and hopefully, out of a pandemic.

After being with Sonic Drive-In for more than thirteen years, Lori Abou Habib is almost four years into her role as the QSR company’s chief marketer. She is deeply rooted in the brand as the company has navigated its way into and hopefully, out of a pandemic.

“Who would have known, a 67-year old drive-in brand would have been so uniquely designed for social distancing,” says Abou Habib. “For us, we were really focused on safety first with the initial adaptations. We quickly adapted there and focused on the CDC guidance. We were also able to successfully leverage a number of things. The drive-in concept was a big advantage for us because we could be a space for people to come and have moments outside of the house, me-time, an excuse to get away from your kids or a place to take your kids.”

Offering these moments of pleasure have been key to the company’s marketing strategy as they continue to create joyful campaigns to delight consumers.

For example, during the Puppy Bowl, a playful event starring shelter dogs looking for adoption airing the day of the Super Bowl, Sonic offered a limited-time offer of a free large drink or Slush with any purchase within their app.

Additionally, the QSR created a “Frito Chili Cheese Wrap” Wrap – a wearable blanket that looks like a Frito Chili Cheese Wrap menu item. To promote the limited-edition merchandise offering, they created a nine-minute video of a man eating a Frito Chili Cheese Wrap. Customers that watched the entire video could purchase the Frito Chili Cheese Wrap Wrap for $0.99. “It was a fun engagement,” says Abou Habib. “The Wrap is comfortable and reminiscent of comfort food which was our intention.”

As the world begins to reopen more, the QSR has more engagements planned. “We are super excited about this summer,” says Abou Habib. “There is a great trajectory coming out of this challenging year and we are very happy about where the strength of the brand is. We have lots of moments of loyalty and engagement from consumers and feel like we have lots of moments to lean into.” 

Brand Innovators caught up with Abou Habib from her home in Oklahoma City to discuss menu innovation, digital media spend, and building loyalty through apps. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does menu innovation help keep the brand relevant?

The product innovation side of Sonic is super important to our consumers. It gives them different reasons to come visit on various occasions and always keeps things fresh. One of the things that consumers really love about Sonic is all of the variety we have. Product innovation is just another way to introduce variety. If we think about where we want to focus, we focus on high-quality foods, things that can be customized, and we also have strengths in beverage and frozen. 

It’s fun innovating in those categories, in addition to the super craveable burgers and entrees. We start with this idea of the Sonic brand, which is all about sparking moments of delightful possibility. We use that as a filter to generate tons of ideas, and we work on the top 10% of ideas that consumers gravitate towards. That is how we sort out the most craveable, biggest ideas and get those products into our pipeline.  

What are your founding brand pillars and how does this come across in your messaging?

The brand pillars are based in our essence, that’s where ‘craving’ comes in. I mentioned our brand promise, which is all about sparking moments of delightful possibility. The filters are our pillars, how we look to do that is through craving, oasis, and delight. For Sonic, we have this idea of ‘craving.’ We have super craveable food, like ice cream and drinks, and on the snacks and entrée side. Cravings can dimensionalize the need for time. That’s where the ‘oasis’ piece comes in. 

At Sonic, we have a unique format with our drive-in model and carhop service. Consumers have the ability to pull into a stall and have their own time, whether it’s with a friend who joins you on your trip to Sonic, or if you are alone and just need a moment of Me-time. This idea of oasis is important in how we cultivate the experience by giving consumers exactly what they want and having this moment for them to relax. 

The last pillar is the idea of ‘delight’ which is definitely a ‘secret sauce’ for Sonic. We are all about finding those moments where you can surprise and delight in a unique way. For us, it’s the mint in the bag, or the cherry in the Cherry Limeade, all those unexpected twists that make the experience special. That is a really important part of our product innovation as well. 

How did offering drive-thru make you ready for COVID?

We provided an oasis in a really chaotic time of crisis. We were certainly excited to be there for consumers and we feel so humbled by how consumers embraced us in that timeframe. There are other aspects that are meaningful too. We are ahead with our mobile app that works incredibly well the drive-in format. You can order off-premise, take your time to place your order for the whole family and customize it however you want. That is something we really lean into in the digital space. When you get to Sonic, you pull into your stall, you log-in, you get greeted by name, and then the carhop will bring out your order. We really embrace this idea of contactless order and payment. We can unlock variety with digital ordering and really deliver the family experience seamlessly. There are a lot of components that work there. 

The innovation was also a key thing. I’ve reflected a lot on how many times I have eaten my feelings in the past 18 months, and I think a lot of Sonic consumers did the same. People were coming to us to indulge their cravings or for an emotional boost. They just needed ice cream or mozzarella sticks. Those were some of the most meaningful pieces. The ability to deliver an oasis with the drive-in concept, unlocking contactless ordering and payment with digital, as well as providing variety, and having new product innovation that gave people incremental reasons to visit.  

How has your media spend shifted since the pandemic began and people are spending more time in digital?

We have been on a journey to increase the portion of our digital media buy for the past few years. It would be fair to say that we’ve accelerated that effort in the last year with COVID. A lot of it was due to organic circumstances, as we didn’t have placement in sports in that prime linear real estate. That really facilitated the shift into digital. We saw a lot of acquisition in our digital channels this year. People were looking for these contactless occasions, and it just made a lot of sense for us to support all that new user acquisition with new messaging to show them what is going on with Sonic.

How have digital innovations helped you through the last year as consumers look for more contactless ordering options?

We launched our app in the middle of 2018 and already had that in place. However, we expanded our ordering platform to browsers, so if you can’t or didn’t want to download the app, you could order online. We launched that over the summer. Additionally, we are currently working on additional capabilities like being able to add a tip in the app. There is lots of good work going on there, we are excited about it because it is one of the most requested features from our consumers. Obviously, our carhop servers are pretty excited about that too. We are really looking forward to that launch.

With all of this new digital access to your customers, are you trying to build more loyalty by using customer data to personalize marketing?

We absolutely will use the data for marketing purposes. In terms of what we offer currently through the app, we already always have an offer of ‘Happy Hour Anytime.’ We also have monthly rewards and birthday rewards. We are certainly looking to supply more value through the app in terms of rewards and engagement for rewarding our loyal customers. We hope to keep that engagement with the people that started to use the app, not only through rewards but also through insider information and new ways to provide convenience features like tipping. We are looking at leveraging the data and information to make those experiences easier and more personalized. 

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