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Turning Fans into Passionate Advocates: Insights from Shake Shack CMO Jay Livingston

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During an exclusive #SMWNYC interview, Livingston discussed Shake Shack’s growth over the years, his philosophy around agency partnerships, and offered his thoughts on the role of data in shaping the customer experience.

“I want to turn us into better storytellers. Stories have been a big part of who we are. As you grow, you have to make a concerted effort to capture those stories as they’re happening,” said Jay Livingston, CMO at Shake Shack during the beginning of his #SMWNYC interview with Tanya Dua, Senior Reporter at Business Insider.

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During the conversation, Livingston explored the company’s major growth over the years the major portion of which attributed to staying culturally relevant, constant collaborations, great food, and social activism. He also discussed his philosophy around agency partnerships and his thoughts on the role of data in shaping the customer experience.

Here are a few highlights from the interview:

Stay culinary, stay cool & stay relevant

Livingston proudly admitted that Shake Shack pays hardly anything for traditional advertising with the exception of small paid social budgets for awareness in new markets.

“We’ve paid for almost nothing, ever. I’ll be really successful if three years from now I’m back here on this stage and we’ve had all of this growth and we still haven’t needed to spend money on traditional advertising because you open that tap, it’s hard to close it. I want to continue to tell our story in really innovative ways” he said.

One key way this is achieved is constant collaborations. As a recent example, Livingston pointed to an HBO partnership centered around Game of Thrones, which resulted in the release of the two fire-and-iced themed menu items: the Dracarys burger and the Dragonglass Shake in honor of the beloved series’ final season.

“We didn’t overthink it. We didn’t try to put a lot of money behind on it terms of marketing. We just thought it’d be a great thing on our menu and an exciting thing for our customers, especially those who are GOT fans,” said Livingston.

Another way in which Shake Shake grows organically is through staying culturally relevant. He explained the brand had a presence at this year’s Coachella both weekends and also had notable exposure during Stagecoach Country Music Festival. In addition, Shake Shack catered the after-party of the new Alec Baldwin film, “Framing John Delorean,” which was an effective opportunity for added exposure amongst A-listers.

“If we continue to do these three things really well, and our food is amazing, we won’t have to spend a lot of money on advertising,” he reiterated.

The evolution of data

“There’s a revolution right now in the way consumers eat… We could see delivery and pickup being 50 percent of the business within two to three years,” Livingston said on the topic of data and its growing role in the customer experience.

Everything from the way restaurants are designed and how customers order to how much energy businesses place into their mobile apps and web ordering experiences to selecting delivery partners — this is a space that is growing and becoming an integral way in capturing customer data and creating more personalized experiences.

Shake Shack hopes to keep as much of these systems and talent in-house, but as they go along will be an evolution for them to figure out as they find the right balance between what they can do themselves and what will require agency support.

Understand when partnering with an agency makes sense

“We have a lot to say about sustainability, the culinary process, and the food we serve. How can we capture the interest of audiences that didn’t expect to be interested in us?”

This is a very tight line for Shake Shack, admitted Livingston. When it comes to designing content, he prefers to keep as much in-house as possible with exceptions like working with Droga5 on its GOT campaign. To explain this further, he outlined a few key pros and cons to outsourcing talent to agency partners:

Pros:

  • They can get a ton of work done very quickly
  • They bring in a unique, outsider’s perspective through new talent and ideas

Cons:

  • They’re expensive
  • They never know you as well as you know yourself

“If authenticity is such an important part of the brand outsourcing your creative to someone else and not taking the time to learn it and build it inside, I think is a mistake, and ultimately doesn’t get you as good of a product,” he warned.

He didn’t deny the fact that as the company continues to grow there could be more engagement with agencies required, but until then, he views a lot of value from personally having one foot in the art and one foot in the science. In other words, being hands-on in the design, content, and storytelling development team and what their work ultimately shows in the way the brand presents itself to the world.

Pick your spot & get behind it authentically

“We want people to be able to express themselves with no limits,” said Livingston on how he ensures action is put behind the Shake Shack’s core values and interests including inclusivity and diversity.

For instance, the brand is deeply committed to its support of the LGBTQ community, he explained. “We’re going to decorate our offices in the West Village, we march in parades around the country and give Shack’s unique swag around pride.”

In addition, “All In” is a company effort targeted at promoting diversity and female initiatives. He explained how in the restaurant space it isn’t easy for women to earn senior-level roles and he hopes to make that path smoother for his employees.

More generally speaking, Livingston underscored that there are two sides to every issue, and understanding both vantage points before choosing a side is critical.

“When we go out we have to at least understand what the other is thinking; what’s motivating them; what’s driving them. I always encourage having both sides of the argument first, because then we can feel good about whatever we go out with.”

A key piece of advice Livingston left attendees with stemming from his experience as an angel investor, producing films, and prior roles at BARK and Bank of America was, “stay close to what’s happening in different companies and industries and learn from them.” In other words, sometimes the best inspiration can come from looking outside of your industry or category.

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