Dolly Parton May Show How Harmonized Celeb Partnerships Can Be
Brand-celebrity partnerships go back generations, with mixed results. Here’s why Dolly Parton’s expanding bond with Cracker Barrel is likely to be more rewarding for both.
By Jenn McMillen, CLMP™ Founder and Chief Accelerant of Incendio
Dolly wants a rockin’ good time. And, being Dolly, she wants you to have one, too.
By extending its ongoing relationship with Dolly Parton to its recently launched Cracker Barrel Rewards program, the down-home chain might be hoping to put its competitors over a barrel. Few celebs are as well embraced as Parton, regardless of musical tastes and demographics.
Still, celebrity-brand partnerships come with well-documented risk. The meltdown of the Adidas-Ye (formerly Kanye West) partnership in October 2022, following the rapper’s anti-Semitic remarks, is just one recent example. Adidas in March reported a $540 million fourth-quarter loss, due in part to its inability to sell his Yeezy-branded products, NPR reported.
Such a debacle is unlikely with Parton, which is partly why Cracker Barrel partners with her.
“A global icon like Dolly Parton, well, she has this innate ability to unite people with her music; she is adored and revered by such a diverse audience spanning people of all different backgrounds and walks of life,” Amy Barnett, vice president of marketing, loyalty and digital experience at Cracker Barrel, wrote in an email interview. “That experience and feeling is exactly what we aim to emulate.”
It helps, she added, that their relationship spans so many years.
Cracker Barrel has been partnering with Parton since 2009, in collaboration with her musical releases. Making her the face of its “Rewards That Rock” campaign to promote its loyalty program, launched in September, was fortuitous. Her album “Rockstar” also recently dropped. As part of the tie-in, program members could enter to win one of 667 Dolly Rockin’ Chairs, co-designed with Parton.
In mid-November, Cracker Barrel stores will begin to carry Dolly Rockstar merchandise, including the CD, t-shirts, and hats.
How Cracker Barrel Dolls Up Loyalty
Early on, Cracker Barrel’s loyalty team made “several deliberate considerations” when designing Cracker Barrel Rewards, Barnett said. It performed several rounds of qualitative and quantitative research, from what to name to the program to analyzing the base construct of a currency-based vs. non-currency-based program.
“First, we made the commitment that our program must add value to each guest’s experience, and it must offer flexibility. And second, the idea with Cracker Barrel Rewards is to build on the aspects of the brand that our guests already know and love – and deliver more,” she said. This is why the company built the program around its popular peg board game; a staple of the Cracker Barrel experience.
As for making Dolly Parton the face of the program, Barnett said the primary objective was to generate mass consumer awareness. But there are historic, cultural tie-ins that ensured a good partnership as well: Cracker Barrel was founded in Lebanon, Tennessee, just miles outside Nashville, so music has long been part of the brand experience. Music, like gathering at the table, is “a very powerful source for people to connect to one another on a deeper level,” she said.
Authenticity also must come to the table, and Parton has authenticity in spades. Cracker Barrel’s partnership with her resonates with Cracker Barrel guests, she continued.
Doing The ‘Sound’ Check
Even a Parton partnership could have hiccups. So before launching Cracker Barrel Rewards in September, the company piloted the program with its employees, staging a rollout in May and June. It used their feedback to tweak and adjust.
The participation hasn’t stopped. Cracker Barrel employees can continue to participate in the program as members. This helped ensure their engagement in the program early on.
As far as how non-employee members are responding, Barnett said it’s too soon to quantify. But she said the company is seeing “directional behavioral differences between members and non-members.”
There have been glitches, too. Cracker Barrel Rewards is like any large, “new technology-oriented” program: There are “kinks to work through and those are prioritized and addressed as they occur to keep the experience both seamless and fun,” Barnett said. The company is, for example, prioritizing backlog issues (this author couldn’t get her points when using both a gift card and cash to pay the check.)
Sage Advice From The Barrel
Asked what advice she’d give any company building a rewards program, Barnett, who built a career in loyalty strategizing, offers four:
- Put “care” front and center. Cracker Barrel’s defined mission is “Pleasing People,” so the elements of its rewards program had to adhere to that. The tone and language of the program, for example, is structured speak to its customers in a more “personable, one-on-one manner” so members feel cared for and valued.
- Be a good listener, and hum along. Before building a rewards program, companies should be 100% certain of what their customers want, by giving them the opportunity express it, and then building the initiative around that. Once it gets traction, the program’s insights serve as a tool to respond to more detailed feedback.
- Make it a legend, but not a monster. When it comes to engaging reward members, bigger isn’t always better. Effective rewards programs aren’t complicated; they simply deliver what a brand’s customers value. Make it simple, flexible, and designed to meet their needs and preferences.
- Get full company buy-in. Loyalty programs may operate out of the marketing department, but they require support from the board of directors down to the field teams to delivery consistently and reliably. Cracker Barrel’s large-scale loyalty initiative wouldn’t have been possible without universal alignment across all of its stakeholders, Barnett said.
Make It With Heart, 9-to-5 And Forever
Lastly, a loyalty program should be trusted, which the above four elements and the Dolly Parton partnership support. Everyone recognizes Dolly’s voice, but many love her more for her kindness and honesty.
In fact, Cracker Barrel must remain in harmony with Parton’s brand as much as she with it. And that may be the Ye-proof key to this partnership.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.
Forbes.com retail contributor Jenn McMillen is nationally renowned as the architect of GameStop’s PowerUp Rewards, and is Founder and Chief Accelerant of Incendio, a firm that builds and fixes marketing, consumer engagement, loyalty and CRM programs. Incendio provides a nimble, flexible and technology-agnostic approach without the big-agency cost structure and is a trusted partner of some of the biggest brands in the U.S.