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Get to Know Leaders in Loyalty | El Pollo Loco, Andrew Rebhun | Q&A

Updated: May 11, 2022

We’re Loco For Our Next Spotlight

Andrew Rebhun is no stranger to customer loyalty, after working for Fortune 50 companies, including McDonald's Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and currently El Pollo Loco.
Andrew Rebhun

And when it comes to the well-known restaurant chain originally established in Mexico in 1975, Rebhun is bringing his extensive knowledge to the team as the brand's new Chief Marketing Officer.

Rebhun is an accomplished global marketing executive, who has delivered first-to-market products and profitable growth for billion-dollar brands. "He brings a keen understanding of franchise models and partnerships – achieving unprecedented growth, sales and profitability. He’s known as an engaging people leader who operates with agility, motivating employees and franchisees at both general office and regional environments, employing innovation, data, insights and business acumen," according to Brand Innovators.

Let’s Get to the Meat of the Q&A

Q. What's your role at El Pollo Loco and what was that journey like to get there?

A. "I’m currently the Chief Marketing Officer at El Pollo Loco, where I oversee all marketing and brand strategy functions.

About two and a half, three years ago, we identified that there was a need to drastically transform the way we treated digital with our consumers, our franchisees, and the way we showed up in market. I think ultimately it started with taking a few steps back and analyzing how we were approaching the way we communicated with our customers from an email standpoint, from a digital standpoint, and an overall messaging standpoint in the restaurants. We formally retrained our restaurants. We relaunched the loyalty program. We redesigned email. We launched segmentation. It was a number of different facets that we had throughout a period of two to three year and that really helped us accelerate our digital transformation. Obviously with COVID in the market as well, it helps customers realize that we had a digital medium out there and further helped us accelerate that progress."

Q. What are the top three things that you're focused on at El Pollo Loco for loyalty in 2022?

A. "I think there's three big things that we're focused on in 2022, the first being brand. I think our brand presence has come a really long way and we obviously want to continue to remain consistent with our brand in our emails and our social media. It's going to be very, very apparent in loyalty that we want consumers who are not necessarily considering El Pollo Loco as top of mind. Through loyalty we're hoping to cast a wider net and get some of those Gen Z and Millennial consumers into our restaurants.

The second piece I'd say is through food innovation. Our menu is phenomenal. We're known for our fire grill chicken, there’s a 55 minute cooking process, and it's extremely tasty. It's one of those things that allow us to own our lane. Recently, we came out with a new product called Mexican Shredded Beef Birria, and it was an opportunity for us to invite our local rewards members, early VIP access to the product two days before the general public had the opportunity to try it.

So again, really allowing our best customers who visit us the opportunity to try the new product news first. Quite honestly, the launch has been a massive success past our wildest dreams. It's been our most successful launch in the 40 year history of the brand in terms of percent of sales mix.

I think the last piece I'd say is really doubling down on digital, digital 2.0, which is a revamped loyalty program, which we're hoping to launch at the back half of this year. We’re really focused on what are the key differentiators in terms of establishing that customer loyalty, making it not just about a food-based reward, but other potential rewards. Then re-establishing ourselves in our email communication segmentation and further utilizing artificial intelligence and the loyalty journey."

Q. When we talk about loyalty for brands, especially coming out of the pandemic, what are the challenges that these brands are facing that just want to get it done?

A. "I think the biggest piece is establishing your presence in the market. I think you have to realize that there's so many brands that are competing for eyeballs and attention, so you really have to figure out a way to differentiate your brand wholeheartedly.

For us, it's about building that emotional connection with the consumer. It's not always thinking in terms of the transaction. It's in terms of trying to figure out how you can be top-of-mind consideration, how you can remember those iconic moments in the brand's heritage and culture, and things that are relevant to consumers in their day-to-day lives.

It's about building that story and building that relationship with the consumer. That's probably the biggest thing I'd advise brands is take your hat off for a moment and think about yourself and your own behavior. What are the ways you like to interact with a brand, how many emails would you like to receive, and what are the emails that really get you excited when you hear something from a brand like ours?"

Q. When you look at loyalty there's a lot of commonly held beliefs that have been around for a long time. What's one that you just absolutely disagree with and you think we need to stop?

A. "One of the biggest pieces that I disagree with is the welcome offer. I think a lot of brands are a little scared and tentative to do a welcome offer that essentially opens the coffers to that consumer's wallet or access to the consumer's phone. I think one of the pieces that I just continue to hammer home with my group, as well as our franchisees, is just that exchange of data, the consumer is expecting something for that transaction. And the biggest piece is just making sure that if you do have a welcome offer, make sure you have a plan after that welcome offer is out in the market.

One of the things we experienced very early on in our program four or five years ago, we had the best welcome offer out there, but I think it was the plan after that welcome offer, to make sure that we continue to build that relationship with the consumer, that initially was not there.

That's one of the pieces that I would say, the welcome offer is still important.

The other big thing that I see is a lot of brands say they’re going to really double down on digital, they’re going to be extremely strategic, they’re going to put together the best welcome offer out there. Well, that's great. You're going to get your numbers up immediately, but if you don't have a plan after that, how are you going to get your consumer to come in for that second, third, fourth visit?"

Q. What's one thing when you look at loyalty that you would like to see solved and how would you go about fixing it?

A. "The biggest piece where we’d like to see better results is the way we manually deploy offers in the system today. I think that we've done a much better job of segmenting our offer database, making sure that consumers are receiving offers that are relevant to them, and we've deployed artificial intelligence to really help us with our decision making capabilities.

AI is one of those things that is just going to continue to improve over time. A lot of the AI machinery in the restaurant space is still relatively new. It's kind of like a newborn child, right? A newborn child grows up, it gets exposed to more things, it starts talking - similar to AI. I think the restaurant industry specifically is not high on the adoption curve right now and as more and more restaurants adopt the technology, it's going to be a lot stronger in terms of its ability to predict, to perform, learn, and advise us to do better."

Q. What's one thing everyone in the loyal space should stop or start doing today.

A. "Stop using “I think,” and manual calculations as much and really rely on data and artificial intelligence to help some of the decision-making.

Artificial intelligence also helps with the precision of discounting today. You might say, well, it's going to be $3, $4, $5 off, that's going to get the customer to come to your restaurant. Through artificial intelligence and data aggregation, you're going to have a much more precise way to determine whether or not the degree of confidence you have in terms of getting that customer to visit your restaurant location."

Q. The complaints that I often hear about personalization are that it comes down to a data problem, a data science problem, or a scale problem. Do you think it's one of those things or something else and how would you solve for that?

A. "I would say it's all of the above. And I would tell you that over the course of the last six months to a year, I've received what I would call industry led education from a CDP and CRM platform standpoint. I would say that this is a space that is exploded. You see a lot more players out there relative to offering solutions to siloed data, and I am just really grateful for the industry knowledge and the space. A lot of my peers were incredible as we went through the process of selecting a vendor to really help us just further establish ourselves in the loyalty space.

Like you mentioned, the silo data is very tough because I want to know if a customer buys gift cards from us. I want to know how often a customer is visiting my restaurant. I want to know if a customer is tweeting at us. I want to know if a customer’s complaining. There's so many different data sources in terms of building that customer profile and I think the brands that are going to win are the ones that are going to put in the marketing technology infrastructure that will enable them to be successful with all the different data sources that are coming in.

I would say that's the one thing that I think has really helped us. We're still at the very beginning stages of building our marketing tech stack, but I think we've come a long way and I'm really excited for what the future holds."

Q. You mentioned CDPs in that last response there, from the numbers I've seen about 30% of brands have CDPs in place. Is CDP just like the answer on the holy grail to solving the data problem, or what do you think?

A. "I think it's kind of a two headed monster. Number one is risk. Is your organization willing to take on some of that risk? Because there are some risks that come with having a CDP. The other is resources. I think you really need to have a strong IT partner that really understands the space, understands data, pipes, flows, etc., to ultimately understand what that customer lifetime value means for the organization and how all the data aggregates and comes together. It's really important that you have somebody who knows what they're doing. And so for us, we're very fortunate in that respect."

Q. What's one loyalty experience, positive or negative, that's had a major impact on you?

A. "For me, I would say it's the travel space. There was a time in my life where I was traveling 4, 5, 6, 7 times a week, where you show up in a different city every single day. The biggest piece and the thing that I love about travel loyalty is the ability to have that sense of mind and sense of ease as you're going through the experience.

Probably one of my most memorable loyalty experiences was with Marriott international. There was a time where I stayed 200 nights in a Marriott in a year and they knew me as their platinum elite loyalty member. By the time I left that hotel, I got a robe with my name on it, a hotel book with all the employees' photos in it that said, “thank you for staying here” - that to me is loyalty. That's going above and beyond. I know from that experience, it's definitely changed the way that I approach some of our top customers. It's something that I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."

I’ll Take My Order to Go

So we’ll leave you with this to take home, El Pollo Loco is not only serving up delicious food, but with Rebhun leading loyalty, they’re also dishing out a killer customer experience.

As Rebhun explained, artificial intelligence is now powering brands to connect with customers across an entire journey. Whether by email, in-person, or on social platforms, putting that infrastructure in place is vital to getting customers beyond the first purchase and for making an impression that leaves a good taste in your mouth (pun intended).

Listen to Rehbun's interview along with interviews from other leaders in loyalty on our podcast ->

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