Daily dialogue on social media is key.

“We want to make customers hungry for Mariano’s,” Amanda Puck, Director of Strategic Brand Development at Mariano’s in Chicago, told a rapt audience in her session.

The chain’s marketing mix engages customers with its array of retail foodservice concepts—oysters, sushi, barbecue, pizza, wine, gelato and smoothies among them—that are destinations. Mix and content also advance Mariano’s culinary reputation, and support the chain’s charitable priorities to relieve hunger and help children.

Mariano’s mix leans heavily on social media, run by a full-time staffer who interacts daily with customers. “Think of it as your platform for digital customer service. It’s not about posting a picture or an item. People who post on social media want to be heard,” said Puck. “We let customers in through social media. It’s the perfect way to connect because they are so engaged in what we do.” The manager, for example, has lately been answering many questions about a new farm—is it organic, does it use GMOs?

“We say people don’t come to our stores to shop for ingredients or run through a laundry list of things to pick up. It’s an experience for them—learning about a spice they never heard of, taking a class on Italian wines. We focus on different aspects of everyone’s life. We focus on entertainment and celebrations. And we focus on local partners and local brands,” she explained.

To help convey what Mariano’s stands for, the chain hired a social media manager and a consulting firm. “The manager should curate content, engage with customers, and take good photos. It leads to a lot of great discussion. We’re under the norm of 10% of getting negative commentary,” noted Puck. 

The consulting firm assesses “What your efforts mean. What is your share of voice? What are your competitors doing? What’s your engagement rate? What’s your click rate? We get our statistics on a weekly basis,” she added.

Social media content covers many Mariano’s happenings, said Puck, including:

  • Seasonal items coming in at peak freshness.
  • New items, such as special smoothies or sandwiches. The chain announces menus on social media, in stores, e-mail blasts, press releases and promotions.
  • In-store and off-premise events, such as wine classes with known experts which sell out and move volumes of cases; charity runs and food pantry drives in many communities; and an Easter egg hunt in designated store aisles, which thousands sign up for. “We love kids’ activities—they drive parents’ trips to the store,” said Puck, noting other youth events—tea parties for kids, and building bird feeders for Earth Day.

Puck also urged audience members to “keep up with Millennials and Snapchat. It’s the one social media outlet where we give customers an insider look at what we’re doing—whether it’s an event, or a sneak peek of a new item. Our customers really like it. Understand why it needs to be done, and be savvy about it so you can direct the staff that needs to do it.”

Among her points on other marketing components:

  • E-newsletters are the most powerful tools we have to promote our foodservice at retail because people who sign up for them want to get them, read them, and engage with your store. Restaurants average an open rate of 21%, and people seem just as engaged in foodservice at retail.
  • Nurture, develop and work your e-mail database. Make sure content is what customers want to see. This will come by trial and error. Mariano’s announces store happenings such as hot sales and special holiday events. If an event will be at one store only, Mariano’s sends only to that store’s list. “We went from not selling out some of our events to having a wait list,” she said.
  • Numerous events engage customers and build sales—Wine tastings with experts. Local beer pairings with pizza. Appearances by name chefs. Live music. Presence of the Super Kaley mascot (which represents Mariano’s best-selling smoothie). Sessions with dietitians. Art classes. Sponsorship of the James Beard Awards. “Utilize event managers on staff—we have about 20 total for all of our stores,” said Puck.
  • Choose your charitable partners well and find a purpose. Say yes to the right ones. Mariano’s, for instance, supports food pantries in the markets it serves, and helps other organizations that feed underprivileged youths, help them build confidence and participate in events.
  • Mariano’s partners with the Chicago Tribune Magazine and the hyperlocal Chicago Social publication in a campaign called Taste Makers. “We see chefs and lifestyle experts come through the store to get ingredients for their personal use. They love our store, they’re passionate about it, so each year we pick 6 to 8 Chicagoans who we feel embody who we are,” explained Puck. They do a photo shoot, and some do appearances that help sell cases of their brands of wine. “A lot of our taste makers are educational, empowering and aspirational to a lot of our customers in a good way, and they have good products,” she said.

The Tribune produces Mariano’s Magazine. It has 30 pages of Mariano’s specific content, and is vendor-funded with advertising. The chain sells the magazine for $1.99 and directs funds to a charity that feeds underprivileged youths.  

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