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Inside Red Robin’s comeback plan amid a cookie-less future

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The writing has been on the wall for some time. But as Google’s third-party cookie finally starts deteriorating, advertisers are having to finally grapple with the cookie-sized hole in their targeting strategies. That hole is something that Red Robin’s CMO Kevin Mayer has been thinking about even before he started the job last May.

For the past year, the 54-year-old restaurant chain has been working toward its “North Star” five-point plan, part of which includes a marketing and advertising revamp to get in front of Gen Z consumers via their digital screens. The legacy brand has been working to build up its customer base, especially amongst younger shoppers, all while mounting data privacy initiatives have made digital marketing more difficult for marketers.

“This brand used to be more of a scatter shot television, national television type of advertiser,” Mayer said. “We’re much more now of a targeted behavioral advertiser.”

Since taking over the CMO role, Mayer has spent his time upgrading Red Robin’s digital media as a means to drive business growth, he said. Meaning, the restaurateur is currently honing in on its first and third-party data. The first-party data seems an easy enough conquest as part of Red Robin’s five-point plan and includes building up its loyalty program. The third-party data, however, proves to be more complex, as it is for most advertisers on the hunt for alternative channels to target and acquire customers as Google’s third-party cookie rolls away.

As the burger chain looks to cast a wider net, targeting and capturing more shoppers, it has focused on “Unified ID kind of targeting” or alternative identifiers created from an email address or phone number, and lookalike modeling as opposed to cookie tracking, he added.

“We can use Google and some of our programmatic data to understand [some] of the folks served ads, who have been in the restaurants, which is just a piece of the puzzle,” Mayer said. “But we think using all of these together is a way that we can really understand how effective our marketing is.”

Red Robin has been working with agency partner Apiary Digital since last September on its data strategy, said Mayer.

As opposed to taking a wait-and-see approach to see if Google will throw advertisers a bone, some marketers are starting to test alternatives to third-party cookies. However, there’s a hesitancy around experimentation as it comes with a degree of uncertainty.

“There’s a number of different solutions out there in-market,” said Rachel Gantz, managing director at Proximic by Comscore, a programmatic advertising company. “Unified identifiers or alternate identifiers are definitely one that brands are leaning into. I will say that they’re great, but they still have scale limits.”

It’s unclear what Red Robin’s media spend looks like as Mayer did not offer specific details. Last month, Red Robin invested in digital display ads at a whopping 93% of the month’s ad spend, according to MediaRadar. The remaining 7% was spent on paid social and mobile ads. From January to November of 2023, the company shelled out more than $7 million on ads, according to Vivvix, including paid social data from Pathmatics. That figure is significantly less than the $21.3 million spent during the same time period in 2022.

Google’s third-party decay is another step into a future of uncertainty, compounding on top of Apple’s ATT, which muddied targeted advertising on mobile devices. There’s no crystal ball allowing advertisers to plan for the cookie-less future, but Gantz says supplementation will be the name of the game going forward. 

Regardless of the alternative identifier, there are challenges, like scale and reach, with most of them. To create the same holistic customer database that the third-party cookie did, advertisers will need a mix of solutions, she added.

“Brands are looking for consistent audience reach, targets and definitions, but the tactics to get there are needing to be a complement of different tactics, because there are challenges associated with each one,” she said. 

Ten years ago, Red Robin considered itself a leader in casual dining. The brand has “lost its way a bit” since then, said Mayer. To get back on track, the restaurant is bolstering its digital media efforts. It’s unclear if that comes with an increase in marketing budget, at least for now, per Mayer.

“One day. Right now, we’re focused on taking what we have and making it work harder for us,” he said. “As we start to earn some of that trust in regards to marketing metrics and traffic, who knows where we go from there?”

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