Most readers of this site will remember TGI Fridays, probably fondly, as a go-to restaurant for birthday parties and other celebrations when they were younger. Leaders at the American restaurant chain (which rebranded to ‘Fridays’ in the UK in 2020, a decision that yielded mixed reviews) are well aware of the nostalgic place the brand holds in many hearts, but also of the need to remain modern and current.
Speaking at Retail Week Live 2023, former COO and current interim CEO Julie McEwan spoke about the brand’s journey post-Covid: like many hospitality brands, it struggled during the pandemic, but has since been course-correcting, bringing on a new CMO with an extensive background in retail and CRM, and revamping its loyalty scheme. McEwan discussed guest experience in the wake of the pandemic, how the brand is using customer and sales data to hone its offering, and how it keeps innovating on its most well-known selling point: celebrations.
Investing in data, with a new CMO from dunnhumby
“Within TGI Fridays, the guest experience is so important,” said McEwan – especially in the wake of the pandemic, when people are looking for “a reason to come out”, and are particularly looking for added value in their dining experience. TGI Fridays like to refer to their customers as “guests”, which is the hospitality industry term, and so talk about “guest experience” rather than customer experience – but the underlying approach is the same.
In order to level up the guest experience and offer this added value to diners, TGI Fridays has been investing in training, data, and digital platforms – “and that’s something that we’ve never done,” McEwan admitted. She attributed the shift in focus to the brand’s “fantastic” new CMO, Rhiannon Scarlett, who spent nearly 14 years working at dunnhumby, including as the Head of Tesco Clubcard CRM & Loyalty, and more than five years at The Body Shop, where she was first Head of CRM and then UK Marketing Director. “She’s opened up a plethora … of possibilities for us – it’s a changing landscape,” said McEwan.
TGI Fridays had a great deal of data locked up in “different platforms that never spoke to each other – it became quite complicated,” said McEwan. She described the task of matching data back to the customer as “something that we’re really honing in on as a business”, while noting that there were other types of data that were helping the brand keep on top of guest feedback and changing customer needs.
“Data is really important to us – we use our feedback platform to keep close to the guest experience, and we use our Net Promoter Scores on a daily basis, not just a weekly basis,” McEwan said. As a result of this renewed focus on experience, customer satisfaction and the brand’s NPS have “shot through the roof”. TGI Fridays also makes a point of sharing both positive and negative feedback with the individual restaurant it was left for, rather than dealing with it centrally. “Our General Managers want to hear [that feedback], and want to resolve those complaints for themselves.
“Let’s be honest, we get a lot of things wrong in retail and in hospitality,” she said frankly. “We learn through the complaints that we get through.”
New rewards app and smarter segmentation
Data from TGI Fridays’ food and drink platform also helps the brand learn about the performance of specific dishes and trends in food and drink ordering. “It’s helped us identify that sesame chicken is still our number one bestseller – and that our Jack Daniels sauce is more popular than it’s ever been, and it’s trending in a positive direction,” said McEwan.
“But also, it’s helped us in terms of innovation – because we had to do something with our drinks sales. We had to do something to become more compelling in the new Gen Z world, and that’s where our bottomless brunch option has come in – and it’s absolutely flying out.”
Drawing on Rhiannon Scarlett’s background in retail, TGI Fridays is developing a new website, which will complement the brand’s new rewards app and house all its data in one place. “This new platform will enable us to have a richer database – it will also identify guest spend, [so that] we won’t be targeting them with things that don’t really matter.” For example, the brand might send an email that highlights activities for families, or promotes events in the customer’s local branch.
“I think it’s important – how many emails do we read on a daily basis?” asked McEwan. “How many phishing emails do we get? Time is of the essence – and no-one has got the time to filter through to what’s important.
“When we look at the quality of our offer, we want to make sure that it’s simple for our guests to navigate, and also relevant to them as a consumer.”
Similarly, TGI Fridays is working to make sure that its rewards offers are personalised and relevant to customers. “There are a lot of [loyalty] apps out there – but making it personalised to them, and knowing the consumers’ habits, is really key,” said McEwan. “Recognising certain events, like birthdays, for example – but also, not just relying on when it’s a pay weekend and [guests] are going to want to spend some of their cash. What about the times when they haven’t got a lot of money?
“We can drop in a ‘surprise and delight’ and throw in £10, £15 worth of vouchers – or we can say, d’you know what, it’s midweek, the weather’s not great; here’s a 2 for 1 cocktail.”
McEwan emphasised that loyalty isn’t always about spending money – “it’s getting people to come back with their friends to create more loyalty.”
How to innovate on celebrations
TGI Fridays’ USP, and its legacy, has long been celebrations – even the brand’s full name, “Thank God It’s Friday” invokes celebration (and relief). McEwan spoke about how TGI Fridays has worked to innovate on this legacy and move with the times:
“I think everybody remembers going to a TGI Fridays and having that birthday chant … But actually, TGI Fridays is more than that. Our menu development has moved on, but so have our celebratory offers as well.” She cited bottomless brunch, which attracts a mixed gender audience, as one of these innovations, as well as cocktail masterclasses, which work colleagues can attend as a group.
“It’s so important that we keep innovating when it comes to celebrations – if we don’t do that, we’re going to be famous for birthdays, but for how long?” McEwan asked.
Developing and training teams is also a key component of maintaining TGI Fridays’ reputation as a “fun brand”. “The teams have got to want to work with TGI Fridays … they’ve got to want to be there to have fun,” she said. If the TGI Fridays brand becomes tired, “it might be because the people within it are tired.”
She admitted that recruiting and training top talent “used to be a lot easier”, but TGI Fridays tries to create an attractive offer by making itself a rewarding brand to work for, with a transparent career path that employees can follow.
“It’s really important that we hold onto talent, recognise talent,” said McEwan.
The brand has faced renewed challenges in the past year with a tougher trading environment and low consumer confidence; in May 2022, its operator in the UK, Hostmore, posted subdued revenue compared with pre-pandemic levels, and in January 2023, CEO Robert B. Cook stepped down following the publication of Hostmore’s 2022 financial results. The company has also delayed its latest update, although it says this is “unrelated to recent trading”.
Concluding her talk at Retail Week Live, McEwan said “the ship is turning”, adding that TGI Fridays has been on a “journey”:
“We went through a whole DNA process … I thought I knew what our guests wanted, [but] it wasn’t until we went through a 12-month reconfiguration of the brand, and some of the ideas that were coming out at the time – I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t going to work.’ But actually, we implemented everything through that DNA process – and the brand … is going from strength to strength today.”