Now that football season is in full swing, so is Hooters. The chain relies heavily on the games being shown on its television-bedecked walls to create another lure for customers besides its attractive Hooters girls.
This year, Hooters also attracted a new chief marketing officer, Carl Sweat, who joined the fast-casual brand after a long stint with Coca-Cola, then some time with Starbucks marketing, and a period with entrepreneurial beverage companies including FRS.
One of Sweat’s first major initiatives was the “World’s Largest Draft Party” on August 2 in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, where the brand invited fantasy-football fans to draft teams as well as enjoy entertainment, Hooters’ chicken wings, prizes and cash. The party attendees received coded wristbands so they could instantly share their photos on the stadium’s Jumbotron.
Hooters also recruited ex-NFL coach and ESPN Monday Night Football TV commentator Jon Gruden to pitch for the chain. In addition, it started a partnership with fantasy-sports sites DraftKings called the Hooters Fantasy Football Challenge, to activate in-store codes for free online play opportunities and chances to win $300,000 in cash and prizes.
In fact, the first winner, Jeff Bach, an attorney from Peoria, Illinois, was scheduled to get his check for $5,000 on Thursday and cashed in on a trip to meet Gruden for what Hooters called a “football immersion session.”
brandchannel talked with Sweat about his new gig and Hooters’ marketing plans.
brandchannel: Why take the job at Hooters?
Carl Sweat: I’m an Atlanta native [where Hooters is headquartered], and I’ve always been intrigued with the Hooters brand. It’s a marketing icon. I saw the opportunity for amplifying the brand and bringing it to the next level. I already had some experience working previously with CEO Terrance Marks, and I was intrigued by his vision for the brand. It was the right place, the right time, the right brand opportunity.
The bigness of the brand was the most alluring part. There is the opportunity to do some unique things that don’t fit into the boring stretch of casual dining out there. If you can’t have fun marketing Hooters, then you’ve got some issues.
bc: How important is football to Hooters?
Sweat: We’re a destination for a lot of our core customers, but it isn’t just around the NFL. We also have very strong peaks around March Madness and soccer’s World Cup. We also are an ongoing sports lovers’ destination because of what we’ve done inside in terms of the number of TV screens and high definition.
But it’s important for us to get into fall football to reassert that leadership and be top of mind with those core customers, and also with new customer who sometimes haven’t been to Hooters, or who haven’t been there in a while.
bc: Why did you partner with DraftKings and why this particular effort?
Sweat: We wanted to dial up what was already a strength at Hooters. We’ve been doing draft parties for several years and have been successful with them, but we wanted to take that to the next level. As a football-avid nut case, I saw what was happening in the industry and I’d been playing fantasy for some time—and DraftKings and PanDuel were ratcheting up the next level of the daily fantasy sports industry. No one else on the landscape was doing it. We saw an opportunity to differentiate ourselves and set the bar a bit higher, not only for current guests but also to communicate a connection point to people who hadn’t been to Hooters.
That includes not only the cash prizes but also the chance to do a “chalk talk” with Jon Gruden. He was actually a wing tosser and an oyster shucker at Hooters in his youth in Florida, so he actually does love the brand. To be able to match him up with the most avid and knowledgeable sports fans in the world seemed to be a way to elevate our experience.
bc: Given the NFL’s recent problems with domestic violence, do you think there some element of exploitation of women that critics latch onto with places such as Hooters?
Sweat: Not at all. The Hooters girl is an integral part of the Hooters brand, but there’s a misunderstanding about what she stands for and how she brings our amazing experience to life. You find that people who’ve been to Hooters and experienced it have a much clearer perspective on what the ideal Hooters experience is than those who have not.
The Hooters girl brings to a vibrancy to the table and relates to customers much like a Starbucks barista relates to people coming through the drive-through. There’s a personal connection—maybe you’ll talk about the upcoming game or anything that’s topical. It’s a connection point—a great Hooters girl brings to a life experience, fun and a sense of connectivity. No one is ever alone at Hooters, which is one of the amazing aspects of the brand.
bc: What is your approach to the increasing demand, presumably by many of your millennial customers especially, for better-for-you fare, which is transforming much of the fast-casual restaurant industry?
Sweat: We’ve done quite a bit of research and understand the balance between those who are coming for the most amazing wings on the planet and those coming for some of our other menu items, including a spinach salad and a mahi-mahi sandwich. We’re building the idea that there’s a lot more on the menu, and to help get that “no” vote to understand that we have offerings that really address anything you could want.
But that’s an opportunity for us. So in tests, we are reconfiguring our menu to call out “wise choices” of healthful items using the Hootie the Owl logo. And we have executed a test with Ibotta, a great shopping app, which is highly millennial-centric and highly female-centric. Most people would look at Hooters and think that those aren’t necessarily people we are speaking to or attracting, but we have quite a significant business with women and millennials. We were quite pleasantly surprised with the results we got in terms of bringing those groups in.