Shake Shack VP of brand marketing emphasizes experience over food

Shake Shack has almost always punched above its weight. Starting as a hot dog cart in New York City’s Madison Square Park in 2001, it boldly went public in early 2015 with just 63 locations in what was, at the time, nonetheless one of the largest IPOs in restaurant history.

Since then, the chain has enjoyed national attention, although it remains relatively small with just 518 restaurants worldwide at the end of 2023. That’s partly due to its headquarters in New York City, where much of the national media is based, and the fact that it operated, at least before the pandemic, primarily in vibrant, busy city centers.

But Michael McGarry, the chain’s vice president of brand marketing for the past three years, says much of its outsized presence has to do with the chain presenting itself as more than just a restaurant.

“We are a restaurant brand, but even more than that we are an experience brand,” he says.

“We focus on creating uplifting experiences in a category where others might offer a direct promotion. We often think, how can we make this a little bit more of an experience for people?”

Most recently, Shake Shack did just that at the Academy Awards, when it promised guests a free SmokeShack burger or Chicken Shack sandwich (with a purchase of $10 or more through the chain’s app or website, or through a kiosk in a restaurant), depending on how long the ceremony lasted: if it lasted longer than three hours and 31 minutes, they got the sandwich; otherwise they would get the burger. The offer was redeemable one week after the award ceremony.

“The idea was… let’s have some fun with a current moment,” he said. By making the actual free item dependent on the duration of the awards, guests were more engaged, he added.

“Instead of just saying, ‘Hey, we’re giving you a free SmokeShack… let’s try to make it a little moment.’ That has proven to differentiate us from a lot of the noise in the category.”

McGarry has also emphasized the chain’s gastronomic heritage, which is legitimate. Not only is it based in New York, but it was founded by fine-dining restaurateur Danny Meyer and started as part of the award-winning Eleven Madison Park restaurant. The original kiosk’s burgers were made from the same all-natural beef that the upscale restaurant used, and that Shake Shack still uses, and the chain has always emphasized quality over speed.

So from February 27 to March 3, 2023, the chain turned 10 of its restaurants into reservations-only fine-dining locations to promote its White Truffle menu, which includes a burger with white truffle sauce, fontina cheese and fried sweet onions. a similarly constructed mushroom burger, Parmesan fries with white truffle sauce, bottomless canned wine, a chocolate truffle and a bottle of truffle oil, all for $20 per person.

“That’s a fine-dining burger in a fast-casual environment,” McGarry said, “and so we decided to respond to that and make sure that guests could actually make a reservation and have a white tablecloth experience at Shake Shack . .”

It sold out almost immediately, but more importantly, it created a buzz.

“What we heard is exactly what we wanted,” he said. “Like, ‘Looks like someone’s doing a fine dining experience at Shake Shack.'”

While not many people could actually participate in the experience and it certainly wasn’t monetized, “you were exposed to it, either through social (media) or the fact that the media was writing about it. … It’s so interesting that they feel compelled to talk about it. So we’re able to drive a disproportionate amount of the cultural conversation through some of these activations.”

McGarry also leverages the chain’s insight into its customers to meet them where they live.

For example, Shake Shack customers exercise more than the average limited-service consumer.

“They do something legitimately active two or three times a week,” McGarry said. “So within that active lifestyle ecosystem, there are unique ways we can connect with them, whether it’s through the Strava app… or through neighborhood runs that we can participate in almost every weekend across the country.”

McGarry also wants to market Shake Shack more in the gaming world, but instead of just advertising on the IGN gaming network, “we want to have authentic Shake Shack livestreams. We work with gamers to be a part of it in a very authentic way. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of discipline, but we have seen that the ROI is there.”

Contact Bret Thorn at (email protected)