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eXperience Marks the Spot for Digital Innovation


With a lilting brogue, Donagh Herlihy, EVP, Digital & CIO, might seem unlikely to be a driving force behind innovation for a company that launched with an Australian-themed concept — Outback Steakhouse. Since starting with the Aussie-inspired restaurant in the 1980s, Bloomin’ Brands has grown to include two additional casual dining chains, Carabba’s Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill, plus a fine dining concept, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. With about 1500 restaurants, Bloomin’ Brands needed a way to corral strategies and cross-functional teams to deliver a seamless experience for diners that could be applied across four distinct brands. 

When Herlihy joined the company in 2014, CEO Elizabeth Smith noted that his “expertise integrating IT with marketing will be invaluable as we continue to enhance our digital marketing and technology applications. In addition, he has united geographically dispersed country-led organizations into single global business units for two complex brands.”

Three years later and Herlihy, the man who matriculated from the worlds of gum (Wrigley Company) and direct sale beauty products (Avon), has been at the helm of one of the restaurant industry’s most successful digital transformations.

For Herlihy, any technology strategy must start at the guest experience. “We live in a world where consumers demand greater and greater convenience,” he says. “We look at how we can use technology to maximize consumer convenience; maximize their choice; maximize the control they have over their experience.”

In an exclusive interview with HT, Herlihy outlines how he and his team approach digital innovation, from being vigilant with both data and emerging consumer tech trends to bridging the gap between technology, marketing and operations.

Back to the Fundamentals
One of Herlihy’s first initiatives upon joining Bloomin’ Brands was to solidify a digital innovation team, under the leadership of Desmond Edwards, GVP of Digital Innovation. The cross-functional group is comprised of marketing, operations, analytics and technology. Also included was digital product management, which was relatively new for the company at the time. Herlihy explains that the first item on this newly formed team’s agenda was to pivot from focusing on solutions — a “fast-follower” strategy often based upon looking at what competitors were doing. “We decided to go back to the fundamentals and look at what our specific customers want and expect from our brand,” he says.  

To tackle this, the team built a customer journey map of all the possible interactions consumers could have with a brand from planning, to the actual visit to post-experience engagement. Through focus groups and customer feedback, the map took shape, painting a picture of where the brands were meeting expectations and were they were not.

With four different concepts in two different dining segments, compiling this comprehensive list was no easy feat. In the end, the painstaking process helped Herlihy’s team isolate 60+ steps in the full guest cycle, which were encapsulated into five main stages: entice, enter, engage, exit and extend.

For each of these phases, Herlihy’s team identified where the customer could feel anxiety and how to address his or her needs. “The job of the team was to find out where we can use technology to close that gap and give them choice and control, while maximizing convenience,” Herlihy notes.

During the discovery period, Herlihy noted that some specific pain points consistently emerged for guests and they were all convenience related. “The first two pain points were the wait — and the wait,” Herlihy jokes. “Not knowing how long of a wait there will be causes anxiety upon entering a restaurant, and waiting for a check or to pay causes it at the end. Those five or ten minutes at the end of a meal can overshadow an otherwise great experience.”

Architecting the experience through an app
The company chose to build an app in-house that allows guests to plan visits, pay and go at their leisure. Housed on a Microsoft Azure back-end, Omnivore was selected as a partner to help integrate the app into the company’s standard point of sale from Positouch. Herlihy credits having a consistent POS across brands as an enabler for the digital transition. 

While the journey map for casual dining proved relatively consistent, the fine dining experience was different. The app resonated with the three casual brands, however, it was not as good a fit for Fleming’s, so the company decided not to launch it for that brand.

“Our hunch was that how guests relate to convenience and control would split between casual and fine dining, so we didn’t aim for a one-size fits all solution,” Herlihy recalls. “Each of the three apps have  the same DNA, but they all look different to reflect each brand’s essence.”

Building the app’s functionality in house, presented the Bloomin’ Brands team with the benefit and the challenge of having a blank canvas. Herlihy and his team culled the list of enticing functionalities by prioritizing the needs of customers. The goal was to go to market with a minimum viable product, to get something in the hands of customers. Seeing how the app functioned in real-life and what consumers did with it, enabled the company to gather data about what features were used and what was never used and make appropriate tweaks. This process revealed a trio of essential capabilities: Plan the visit, pay and engage in the Dine Rewards loyalty program.

“We stay grounded to what customers want with that minimal viable product,” Herlihy says. “A year-and-a-half in and it’s still a 4.5-star app in the app store, so we want to keep it simple.”

Delivering simplicity and digital ordering
As an early adopter of curbside takeaway, Bloomin’ Brands is getting ready to double-down on what it calls “off-premise dining” by offering delivery. Herlihy anticipates the brands will ultimately deliver to most parts of the country, so the digital innovation team is focusing on enhancing its already robust online ordering capabilities, pivoting some of the app functionality from browse menu to order to go. 

“People want convenience and this is especially true for an e-commerce site,” Herlihy notes. After operating with an online ordering service that integrated with the POS, the decision was made to bring Bloomin’ Brands website experience in-house. The look and feel of the site is controlled by Bloomin’ Brands with a shopping cart powered by Onosys.

“We have our own e-commerce team, so we can be nimble,” Herlihy explains. “When we do decide to rollout delivery on a broader scale, we’ll be able to
do so quickly.”

With the added complexities that delivery and e-commerce can add logistically, Herlihy’s team has mapped out a digital ecosystem to manage orders and drivers all with the added pressure of getting food to customers in perfect condition. Herlihy shares that investments have already been made to ensure efficiency and productivity when that delivery infrastructure is fully enabled.

For Bloomin’ Brands its customer-centric strategy remains at the center of all its innovation. “We always go back to our customers and bring concepts or solutions to them for their reaction and response,” Herlihy reveals. “We then validate and prioritize based on that customer feedback. Ultimately, the investments we make are not about chasing what competitors are doing or did. We listen to what our customers are saying.”


The 5 Es of the Customer Journey

(Adapted from Deloitte)

Entice. When a guest is thinking about dinner, this phase refers to how a restaurant may show up through web searches, social media and other platforms. 

Enter. The guest’s experience upon arrival: Was there a wait at the host stand; were they seated efficiently? Bloomin’ Brands uses digital to remove anxiety from this phase, by exposing wait times online, so guests know ahead of time what to expect.

Engage. The guest is there, but how quickly did the server deliver drinks and appetizers?

Exit. When a guest is ready to go, they want to go. Make payment easy and seamless.

Extend. Identify how your brand will extend and deepen that customer relationship.  


Lessons Learned

Donagh Herlihy, EVP, Digital & CIO of Bloomin’ Brands shares insights from tech hits and misses.

The Tech: The concept of tablets was warmly enough received that we tested the technology in 21 stores for a 6-month period. While it moved the needle a little bit on table turns and tips for servers, it equated to a break-even proposition. For our guests, it’s not their expectation to have a screen on the table. It wasn’t even a demographic split – some of the most strongly negative responses were from millennials who said they were trying to get away from screens and want to have a social experience.

The Lesson: Make technology in the restaurant less obtrusive – don’t put the work in guest’s hands.

The Tech: We looked at emerging consumer trends as far as possible uses of technology, whether it’s wearables or conversational messaging robots, or plateware and glassware that measures calories being consumed. We spread a wide aperture on what’s coming out of Silicon Valley and how that can pertain to our consumers.

The Lesson:  For digital solutions, we have an 18-month rolling plan. I think planning three years out for consumer tech is wishful thinking – you don’t know what will be relevant in two to three years. Start with a tech trend and the consumer attitude. Without understanding the consumer attitude, it’s just
shiny objects. 

The Tech:  With our Dine Rewards loyalty program we try to keep it really simple and relevant. We made it easy to enroll and manage. A phone number is the loyalty number and guests can register in a couple clicks on the web or app. Points can be tracked and redeemed on the web or app. We have a super-high conversion rate – 85% of the people who visit and start the process, actually finish enrolling.

The Lesson:  Be mindful of how you communicate with guests.  Personalized communication moves the needle more than a richer offer.
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