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Online Trends

Published July 19th 2017

Olive Garden is Bouncing Back. Can Social Data Explain Why?

Olive Garden looked like it was heading to the chain-restaurant graveyard, but has defied odds by hurtling up to the top of our Brandwatch Index. How?

Electronic point-of-sale systems, guest forecasting software and wait-time sharing across nearby restaurants are all examples of customer-first technology that Olive Garden, under the powerful umbrella of Darden Restaurants, would invest in earlier than most chain restaurants.

It was this forward thinking, tech savvy and collaborative mindset that would see them through the rough and smooth.

In the wake of the financial crisis, with Americans eating out less frequently and tightening purse strings, Darden held tight to its analytical approach to knowing the customer. They championed price consistency at a time when customers were seeking value and ultimately rode out the storm in a way that other restaurant chains failed to.

Times wouldn’t necessarily get easier for Olive Garden, though. Darden was essentially taken over in 2014 by Starboard after what Bloomberg calls “a shareholder revolt“. Starboard burned the company with a scathing presentation on everything it was doing wrong and why investors were being put off. The CEO stepped down. Things weren’t looking good.

But since then, Olive Garden (and Darden Restaurants) has undergone an enormous turnaround. The chain just recorded 11 straight quarters of same-restaurant sales growth and Darden’s stock price is at an all-time high (about 150 per cent higher than three years ago).

Olive Garden is back on top.

It also made its way to the top of our Chain Restaurant vertical in the recently updated Brandwatch Index. What’s behind the success? The Brandwatch React team thought we’d take a look through our own unique lens.

Millennials don’t go to restaurants. Or do they?

Strangely enough, it appears millennials are big fans of Olive Garden. CEO Gene Lee claims that millennials make up 30 per cent of Darden’s customers, though they make up just 24 per cent of the population.

“Believe it or not, millennials still want to come to restaurants… People still want to come to restaurants and have that experience. And we’ve just got to provide them the right experience and the right value.”

It might not fit with pervasive thoughts on millennial behavior that removes young people from the habits of their parents – eating out, like home buying, is often regarded as in decline among millennials – but one explanation is that they are just doing these things later than their parents. As millennials start families they’re moving closer to Olive Garden’s key demographic, with family-feeling central to the experience.

Want to know what else millennials like? A consistent, authentic, responsive presence on social media – something that Olive Garden has come to excel at.

Olive Garden on social

Boasting an impressive 380k followers on Twitter and six million likes on Facebook, Olive Garden has a huge audience and treats them well. It’s a winning combo, particularly for a company beginning to capture a younger demographic.

Responses to queries are fast, and the brand knows how to use emoji which is an added bonus. It’s not quite Denny’s but it’s getting there.

Some might call their frequent use of the breadstick on social gratuitous, but they’re really catering to their audience.

Not only are breadsticks a hit in real life, we found that around 10% of social Olive Garden mentions we tracked back until 1 June contained a mention of breadsticks.

Looking at the wider conversation on social, we looked out for significant spikes over the last few months to see how people were discussing the brand. The biggest spikes are non-owned and light hearted.

Breadsticks were, again, a large part.

President Donald Trump was able, again, to get in there too. This adheres to the rule that Donald Trump will find a way to be involved in any conversation and somehow make a significant mark on it.

Overall, Olive Garden is a hugely visible brand on social that engages quickly and helpfully with its audience. These are big factors in making it to the top of our Brandwatch Index.

Consumer insights with social analytics

Olive Garden has long prided itself on understanding its audience, so we thought we’d take a look at its audience using Brandwatch Audiences.

Comparing members of its Twitter following’s interests to the average Twitter user, we found some insightful differences. Firstly, that Olive Garden is on point targeting families. Fans of the brand are also more likely than average to enjoy food and drink (duh), animals, books, games, movies and TV. They’re not so hot on technology, fine arts or business.

Olive Garden

The audience skewed disproportionately female, something we hadn’t expected.

While traditional methods of capturing audience data are incredibly useful, social data can provide additional depth in ways that don’t involve a lot of the bias and consumer interruption that come with other methods. For a brand that’s so people-focused and keen to welcome in a broad audience as part of the family, listening to fans (and non fans) is so important.

In an article we referenced above, we were interested to hear about the CEO’s concerns about new players like Uber Eats.

“We constantly sit around here thinking about how does Amazon have an impact on our business,” Lee said. “Our research tells us that guests still want to come to restaurants.”

Takeout is a growing part of Olive Garden’s business, making up nearly 13 per cent of their sales last quarter, and as delivery drones receive more investment (and positive commentary) and home delivery becomes a more popular way to receive food and goods, will Olive Garden up their delivery game? (Currently they offer larger catering packages, but nothing for a hungover individual seeking a carb-heavy comfort meal).

After all, we did find some demand for personal home delivery in the data we gathered.

Investigation into these issues using social data alongside traditional research methods can only widen the pool of voices a brand has access to, and each is valuable.

Are you a journalist looking to cover our data? Email [email protected] for more information

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