Sonic CMO On Ditching The Two Guys In A Car: ‘Food Is The Star Of The Show Now’

Sonic is putting his food back in the driver’s seat of his brand marketing strategy.

Popular drive-in and fast food chain Sonic today launched a new integrated campaign – one that puts music and food at the heart of the brand’s story.

It represents a new strategic direction for the brand’s marketing, which has for years put a premium on the experience of dining at Sonic. Now, chief marketer Lori Abou Habib says, the restaurant’s indulgent food is getting back in the driver’s seat.

A new focus on food

For years, Sonic’s brand has been tied to a sense of joy and humor. Fans are familiar with TV spots featuring the ‘two guys,’ as the brand refers to them – two men sitting in a car enjoying a Sonic meal together, riffing on one or another inane topic. “The two guys were a big part of forming the brand’s personality,” says Abou Habib.

Now, Sonic isn’t letting go of the two guys’ hallmark sense of humor and playfulness, but the brand’s messaging is moving in a different direction with the new ‘Mmm. Sonic.’

After Sonic was acquired by Inspire Brands for $2.3bn in late 2018, the fast food joint invested major resources in pinpointing its true brand differentiators. “We went through this journey [to land] on Sonic’s point of difference. We’d had different strategies and positionings memorialized before. Where we landed … was really one of the most powerful ways to position the brand – it was all around [the concepts of] craving, oasis and delight.” These three terms, Abou Habib says, truly encapsulate the brand’s identity.

Now, as the brand evolves its identity and its marketing strategy, it’s staying laser-focused on the concepts of craving, oasis and delight, while shifting the focus away from the experience of dining at Sonic and towards the products themselves.

“We’ve found what our food DNA needs to be like,” she says. “As we’ve learned more about what consumers want, we’ve been able to take that personality and express it through the food.” For example, the fast food brand recently debuted its new Fried Cookie Dough Bites, which Abou Habib says strike the right chord from the product perspective.

Now, Sonic has an opportunity to express the concepts of craving, oasis and delight “through this new lens of advertising,” she says. “[Our new approach to marketing is] all about, ‘What is that imaginative craving place? And how does the feeling of that oasis combine with that craving of getting something new, or getting something super-indulgent or just getting the break to have a minute to yourself and get exactly what you want?”

Hitting the right note

As part of this broader shift in how Sonic thinks about product development and marketing, the brand is putting the two guys in the figurative back seat.

“We went from having the two guys in the car talking about the food and really showcasing the experience. You got a little bit of the food, but mostly experience. Most recently, [our ads have] had real consumers talking about how they enjoy the food and how Sonic fits into their lives. We really wanted to sort of shift the emphasis … so the food is the star of the show.”

And indeed, the restaurant’s new campaign puts food at the forefront – through the medium of music. “We wanted [this campaign] to be fun; we wanted it to be reminiscent of the brand’s personality,” says Abou Habib. “Most of your Sonic experiences are in a car, and music is usually a big part of your in-car experience. We find a lot of intersections there – consumers like singing in their car; car karaoke at Sonic sometimes can be a thing. So music feels like a fruitful territory for us and a way to deliver the message. It’s … not too serious; it can have a little levity – you can use a little bit of humor. The music felt very on-brand for us.”

The new campaign, ‘Mmm. Sonic.’ – developed in partnership with Sonic’s agency of record Mother Los Angeles – includes one Spanish-language spot and three English-language TV ads that spotlight Sonic’s limited-edition Chophouse Cheeseburger and its new Fried Cookie Dough Bites. In all of the ads, music is a vehicle for focusing on the products themselves and how the food can create moments of joy and indulgence.

The campaign taps into everyday experiences to tell stories that, as Abou Habib puts it, “everybody can see themselves in.” In one of four spots, a mother rides along as her teenage son practices driving. To celebrate the progress he’s made, they pick up some Sonic Fried Cookie Dough Bites á la Mode. The element of humor arrives when her son slams on the brakes just as she’s trying to enjoy a bite. But where a Sonic spot of the past may have ended there, the new ad closes with product shots that put the food front-and-center in consumers’ minds.

“We wanted to make sure that consumers can still feel that oasis, but are still very much thinking about the food and how they’re gonna get their hands on that food. That’s the first and foremost takeaway,” says Abou Habib.

Frying up future plans

Sonic has fared well in the past few years. The fast food joint was, in many ways, well-equipped to thrive during the pandemic. Its business has always centered on an old-school drive-in concept, which allows for safe and effective social distancing. Meanwhile, the company has had off-premise ordering capabilities since 2018. So as people everywhere grappled with the role of digital consumerism and convenience in a new world, Sonic was already infrastructurally adapted to meet their demands.

And the digital habits that consumers formed over the last two-plus years have largely held. Today, digital orders account for 15% of Sonic’s total sales. “To see [digital tech adoption] Accelerate at such a rapid pace over the last few years across every consumer segment has really been something that speaks to the staying power of that behavior.”

At the same time, she says, as a result of the pandemic, consumers now have a higher demand for convenience and instant gratification. “It kind of comes back to this idea of ​​craving, and it dovetails into digital and personalization – and just being able to get exactly what you want,” Abou Habib says. “People are a little bit more demanding on exactly how they want something – and they know in their minds what they’re craving.”

As chief marketer – a role she’s occupied since 2017 – Abou Habib is focused on communicating to consumers the various ways in which Sonic can answer these and other demands. A key part of the job is determining how to maximize the efficiency and efficacy of the brand’s media strategy. “We’re working to build a best-in-class, cross-brand media approach across all the Inspire brands. We’re asking, ‘How do we come to market … with the most efficiency and the best line-up when it comes to our channel mix?’ It’s been a really fruitful and great opportunity to work across the brands and get to a better place together.”

Another core component entails working closely with the product team to ensure both the product and the messaging designed to support it hit the notes of craving, oasis and delight. “We’ve had lots of great products come out in the last year, and we’re looking forward to a lot of new fun products coming out in the upcoming year,” says Abou Habib.

Following the rollout of Fried Cookie Dough Bites last week, the fast food chain is preparing to debut a new steak butter bacon cheeseburger this fall. “Think about all the flavors of a steak, wrapped up into butter melting on top of a cheeseburger – with some bacon in there. Perfect, as I like to say, to put on your winter weight – just a little bit of warmth for winter.” The product is next in line for creative execution, and with it, Sonic plans on leaning further into the theme of music. “That one’s going to be set in a steakhouse, with some Frank Sinatra-reminiscent kind of music. … We’re really excited about being able to bring the food to life in a new way.”

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