This is ThinkTank, a series in which we quiz brand chiefs and CMOs on where the industry is heading.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 6.00.23 PMFor a generation, the Hooters experience was all about beer, wings and perky waitresses strutting around in skimpy outfits. In recent years, however, the casual dining chain has refocused its strategy a bit. While the Hooters girls remain, the chain has turned its attention attracting millennial sports enthusiasts.

Digiday caught up with Hooters’ CMO, Carl Sweat, for a conversation on how the brand appeals to a millennial audience and builds a digital and live experience. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How does Hooters appeal to the millennial generation?
The interesting thing is that we’ve been appealing to this generation pretty well for quite some time. They’re all about the experience, and that’s what we offer. Hooters is a great equalizer; it’s a fun place to be. There can be a judge sitting next to a college student, sitting next to someone who’s in the military, sharing a great sports experience or ice-cold beer or great food or a Hooters girl’s hospitality. That experience fits in with how the generation sees life.

Really? But millennials tend to be so politically correct.
People might not think of Hooters as the quintessential brand for millennials, but our business has been growing rapidly among millennials. Millennials are coming in as groups, both male and female. They are not judgmental. They’re actually interested in the experience and understand that the Hooters girls make it fun, engaging, and there’s nothing more to it than that.

Such as?
We’re the No. 1 Fireball purveyor in the world, which is a quintessential millennial staple, especially among millennial women. The fact that we are the No. 1 place in the world for sales of Fireball means that millennial women are coming into Hooters and enjoying themselves as a part of the social experience too.

So sex appeal is no longer the crux of your marketing?
A Hooters girl is much more than just an attractive young lady. That’s one of the things we’re bringing to life more in our advertising. Who the ultimate Hooters girl is, is really defined by that experience at the table-side. The personality that she brings, that level of engagement that she’s able to create in her interactions — that is what brings people back, according to consumer surveys.

And how do you target your audience digitally?
We’ve been using our loyalty program; our app is a proprietary tool to tailor offers for our audience. We did a digital outreach during March Madness. We’ve partnered with DraftKings for Fantasy Football, and we’re partnering with ESPN too, both in the restaurant and digitally. This year we decided to take it up a notch, because we realized the market was moving. Especially among millennial guys, they really love the idea of daily fantasy sports — it’s not enough that you have a fantasy league.

You also recently started a Snapchat account. What platforms are you prioritizing?
Digital video is a big direction in which we’re going. We love the immediacy of Snapchat, and we kicked it off in May at our Swimsuit Pageant in Las Vegas. So far, we’ve looked at it as a means to give people access to events they wouldn’t normally have access to, like the pageant, the “World Wing Eating Championship” in Florida, “World’s Largest Draft Party.” The next step for us, which we’ve not done yet, is to really continue to ramp that up and use our Hooters girls across the country from a network standpoint to launch a coordinated effort on a big scale.

How important are influencer partnerships for you in the sports realm?
One of the things millennials look for in choosing brands is authenticity. In our latest spot, we have Jon Gruden challenging viewers to take him on in the $300,000 Hooters Fantasy Football Challenge and saying, “Hey can you beat me?” Coach Gruden is such a perfect fit because he loves Hooters and was actually a part of it at one point. That’s what we’re going to continue to play out. That’s also what happened at the “World’s Greatest Draft Party” we recently threw in Tampa, where we took over the football stadium. We had some great appearances and were really able to bring the top legends of Tampa Bay to interact with fans. That’s what we want to be about, making sure that the experience is paramount.

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