Secret Sauce to Shake Shack’s Success: Data-driven burgers

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By Plus Company, Mekanism

Mekanisme at adweek2022

When it comes to marketing a brand like Shake Shack, Chief Marketing Officer Jay Livingston says it takes more than great taste.

“My job is to ask ‘what’s the story we’re going to tell around this burger?’,” Livingston told Mekanism co-founder and CEO Jason Harris during a live recording of the Soul & Science podcast at Advertising Week’s 2022 conference in New York City. 

Shake Shack doesn’t have a huge advertising budget, he explained, so the company sticks to its origin story around great ingredients and community involvement. Part of Shake Shack’s marketing strategy is to inject local flavors where they make sense. The company’s mantra is ‘the bigger we get, the smaller we have to act.’

This means that local chefs can play with the menu - for example, Cherry Blossom shakes in Japan, or Korean BBQ chicken sandwiches in South Korea.

When it comes to moving these items to a broader customer base, and marketing them, Livingston told Harris he uses data to back up his decisions.

“When I got to Shake Shack, we were all instinct. Randy [Garutti, the company’s CEO] asked me who I would hire first. I said a customer insights team. My goal has always been to be instincts led, but data supported.”

“I want to look at the data and say to these chefs, ‘hey maybe you should do more of this, because that’s what guests love,” he said.

That said, focus groups will never run Shake Shack, Livingston said, but it’s important to hear what guests have to say.

“If you’re never out there talking to people, you’re going to make mistakes,” he added.

Being out in the community is in Shake Shack’s DNA. With a humble origin story that began in Madison Square Park in 2001, the company began as a hot dog cart that was giving proceeds back to the park. Five years later, working with New York’s best chefs, the company opened its first restaurant with an expanded menu that included burgers, shakes, and frozen yogurt.

That origin story and marketing its choice ingredients are bringing Shake Shack success. Last year, the company saw close to $1 billion in revenue.

“In some places, we’re a more expensive burger. Our job is to tell people an ingredient story,” he said. 

To continue building on company growth, Livingston says his marketing strategy includes experimentation.

“It’s tempting to go with what’s working and stay there,” he told Harris. “My thing is you want to carve a little money out for testing campaigns. When it blows up you’re ready to invest more, but you can accommodate some of the failures.”

An experiment that appears to be working is the burger company’s partnership with the hit YouTube show Hot Ones, where celebrity guests answer interview questions while eating increasingly spicy hot wings. The company now sells a Hot Ones chicken sandwich.

“Great companies build their marketing into the product,” Livingston said.