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How Bob Evans Is Building Customer Loyalty and Engagement

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on February 27, 2024

Executive interview with Bob Holtcamp, President and CMO of Bob Evans and Joe Yetter, GM of Punchh

Editor’s Note:

During January, ParTech, Inc. (PAR), a global restaurant technology company and provider of unified commerce solutions for enterprise restaurants, announced that Bob Evans, known for its farm-fresh cuisine and warm hospitality served in iconic family-style had selected PAR's industry-leading loyalty and offer solution PAR Punchh®.

We read in the press release that the restaurant chain with 437 locations across the US was making a commitment to enhance and personalize customer experiences with the goal of creating stronger connections with its guests. The collaboration with Punchh represented a significant step towards enhancing the dining experience and creating deeper guest connections.

Earlier this month, we connected with Bob Holtcamp, President and CMO of Bob Evans and Joe Yetter, GM of Punchh to learn more about this newly announced partnership.

Wise Marketer (WM): Bob Evans is an iconic brand with nearly 500 locations. You make the point that you have “brought the values of the farm to the table for over 60 years.” Tell us more about what your brand represents and the special nature of your menu.

Bob Evans: Bob Evans is a familiar brand to many people. For 70 years our loyalty program was effectively that you enjoyed hanging out with the people around you to talk about the weather and the things of the day while surrounded by great servers to refill your coffee and bring you great food. Hospitality is core to our brand.

Wise Marketer: Will this loyalty initiative change any of that homey feel?

Bob Evans: No, we're not running away from that by any means. When we think about loyalty it goes well beyond frequency building or transactional programs. Instead of using incentives to build frequency, we think about something experiential and connecting with people on an emotional basis.

That’s even more important now, since 30 percent of our business is off premises (food consumed outside the restaurant) with a good portion of that purchased through a digital channel. We are emerging as a digital brand, but still have a brand that's built on a high level of human hospitality.

Wise Marketer: It sounds like you are creating a customer loyalty strategy that is perfectly aligned with your brand. You’re not trying to force the Loyalty Program “square peg” into the “round hole” of the brand.

Bob Evans: Our brand is about comfort food and a comfortable place to gather with friends. We went about the process in a way we believe is compatible with our brand. We just didn't want to think about loyalty in the context of highly informed couponing. We wanted it to be much more about building relationships with people.

Wise Marketer: The press release states that Bob Evans is using Punchh’s “AI-driven loyalty platform to provide customers with personalized offers and rewards through the Bob Evans app.” Is that what attracted you to Punchh?

Bob Evans: Part of the reason we were attracted to Punch was simply because they had an AI driven mechanism that allowed us to enable personalized offers and use data in such a way that we could improve the experiential component that drives emotional loyalty.

The Punchh platform allows us to collect data as guests check in and helps us understand how guests want to interact with us as well as giving us insight to their expectations. It's a platform that does a wonderful job of capturing the attention of consumers and allows us to learn a lot more about them, ultimately personalizing offers at scale.

Wise Marketer: Can you share a use case example of what the customer experiences at the point-of-sale once they are enrolled in the email club? What is the Punchh system collecting and how is this reflected to customers while they dining in your locations?

Bob Evans: I'll let Joe fill in the gaps, but at the end of the day our customers are presented with lots of information as they walk in the restaurant. There's so much information about the menu, the menu itself, posters on the wall, and a server to answer questions and hopefully inspire people. We are hoping the POS and app experience will also be a place for great learning.

Punchh: One of the strengths of our platform is delivering personalized, one-to-one offers at scale. Bob Evans was clear that they're not looking for a base points program at this point, but really wanted to turn up the dial on personalized offers through deep segmentation. We are delivering a solution that leverages the data with deep segmentation and personalization for each of those guests.

Wise Marketer: There's always a debate around mobile apps because it's unquestionably the number one screen for most people. But there’s some friction for people to download the app and to get engaged with it. What are your expectations for download and usage?

Punchh: The number of people who actually download the app varies by brand, but on average, we find that 58% of loyalty guests use their mobile app to do a loyalty check-in. We have found the mobile app is one of the richest channels because you have the most information about that  and it opens up opportunities to interact with your customers via in-app messaging, gamification and more.

Wise Marketer: How are you expressing recognition to customers? Is it in the form of surprise and delight or something else?

Bob Evans: Yes, that is the overarching theme; surprise and delight. You know it's going to be informed and delivered through the app, but also through email or text. We want to communicate with people on the channel they prefer. It can be as simple as “thank you,” or “we notice you’ve been ordering certain items, and we have a new menu item we think you would like.” The result so far is better than any advertising campaign we could have made.

Wise Marketer: What is your approach to managing the customer data you collect?

Bob Evans: It's putting all this data together, and at the end of the day the app and that platform, the punch Loyalty app platform, is really at the center of it. We’re hoping this knowledge will help us appeal to a younger family and it can be a tool for us to acquire customers and increase household penetration.

Wise Marketer: Can this initiative actually be an acquisition funnel for you?

Bob Evans: Yes. Technology is an exceptionally good place to go in order to appeal to a younger user. We have also included a digital wallet allowing customers to pay from the app. It’s all part of a puzzle that we're putting together to get people to be more excited about their visits to Bob Evans.

Wise Marketer: The announcement highlighted PAR Punchh's AI-driven loyalty platform. AI is a hot topic today. How are you using AI in your loyalty management system and what does that mean for Bob Evans and its customers?

Punchh: Everybody talks about AI and the advent of large language models like Chat GPT. So, when you hear something like “AI powered platform,” you think this is built on some sort of large language model. There are actually many different use cases where automation and learning can help build a platform and help optimize the performance of a brand.

For Bob Evans, we are building more refined and robust segments, which are key to higher engagement, frequency, and monetization. We’ve built a smart tool on our platform that continuously optimizes segments and build segments for you to test and learn. This one-to-one personalization at scale is enabled by what we call “smart segments.”

Another tool we have on our platform helps to optimize the time you send promotions, leading to the highest open rates. After 6 months of training, it will produce smart segments. We're going to keep investing in these use cases from predictive AI like smart segments mentioned above to generative AI like the ability to generate personalized customer service emails. Over the next 5 years there'll be platforms that are solely built from large language models, but today it's about building in those use cases where brands can leverage them instantly.

Wise Marketer: What’s the future of AI for customer loyalty?

Punchh: We're really just at the beginning of the AI revolution in the loyalty industry. While Punchh has already launched a number of AI tools like smart segments, send time optimization and more, we know we're just at the start. We're exploring everything from AI powered offer recommendations to AI powered data insights to speech-to-segment creation powered by ML. Imagine this, in these coming years, brands will brag about how small their segment sizes are. That's going to be the bragging of these big brands in years to come.

Wise Marketer: Prepping for this conversation, you cited a study from Deloitte that said 47 percent of restaurant loyalty members use their memberships several times a month and 32 percent multiple times a week. How important is it to place more focus on customer loyalty, and what are your expectations for the future?

Bob Evans: We absolutely believe that this 70 plus year old bricks and mortar brand built on fresh cracked eggs, toast, bacon, sausage brand is actually an e-commerce business today. We've got to find ways to make sure we talk to customers digitally as they are living today, so we are embracing the idea of being in the e-commerce business. That said, we will always keep hospitality as the core of our DNA.

Punchh: This is just a first step, and what made us so excited about the partnership is the vision Bob Evans has to leverage the digital experience. This is an entry point and we're hoping that the partnership continues to grow.