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John Cappasola is EVP and chief brand officer at Mexican restaurant chain Del Taco, where he leads marketing and operations training.

Cappasola has been leading Del Taco's efforts to change consumer perception of the brand from quick-serve restaurant (such as McDonalds or Taco Bell) to fast-casual restaurant (such as Chipotle). The key to changing consumer perception, he said, is keeping the brand focused and fostering the right framework.

In this exclusive interview with, Cappasola elaborated on how Del Taco's rebrand efforts are driving results and meaningful improvements in the company's key performance indicators. Can you tell me a little bit about your career as a marketer before you joined Del Taco?
Cappasola: Before Del Taco I was at Blockbuster for 16 years, and my path there was somewhat unique in that I spent my first nine years in our operations group running stores. I learned how to manage a business, lead people, and drive results. But I also developed and honed my marketing and merchandising skills and had a knack for using data to improve store-level performance.

My results in that area led to an opportunity for me to spend the next seven-plus years in marketing. Beginning as the director of field marketing, I learned about local marketing strategies, print, trade area analyses, and how you effectively use this information to drive sales in existing stores. Field marketing was also responsible for grand openings and localized marketing strategies for new market entries; we were opening a few hundred stores a year there for a while.

The five years prior to Del Taco, I worked in strategic marketing and consumer concept development. We developed new retail and rental value propositions and concepts. I learned the value of research and development, how to build a sub-brand, how to market the sub-brand, and how to integrate it with operations, which can be a missing link sometimes. Can you describe your role as chief brand officer?
Cappasola: I have the honor of leading a talented group of people, and they're responsible for generating great guest and brand experiences at Del Taco. Our belief here is that the ongoing challenge—or opportunity—that any restaurant brand faces is perfecting and aligning the restaurant experience with the brand promise. Del Taco is committed to serving our guests fresh, delicious food for a great value and with convenience. Our entire model at Del Taco is designed to fulfill that promise, starting with my role. So how is your role different from the traditional CMO role?
Cappasola: I oversee all of the key consumer touch points with our brand. I have the traditional CMO responsibilities, such as advertising, marketing, public relations, consumer insights, and research and development, which cover both our operations and new innovations.

I'm also involved with operations and training support because we believe our systems need to enable great guest experiences, and our people have to be trained well to interact with our guest in a way that builds our brand. And evolving our culture to be more guest-centric has been a strategic focus for us. Lastly, restaurant design and construction report to me because there isn't a bigger consumer touch point than our facility or that actual restaurant.

So the role I play is about leveraging all of our consumer touch points in a coordinated fashion to maximize brand impact and generate great guest experiences with Del Taco. What advice can you offer to marketers who want a career in your industry?
Cappasola: First, you should have a real passion for the brand and category you work for in order to thoughtfully dive deep; the more inquisitive and curious, the better. Great marketers leverage research and data to develop insights about their brands that are meaningful and actionable. Research and data alone aren�t enough.

Regarding the restaurant industry, it's fast-paced and offers marketers the ability to innovate and evolve quickly. You need to stay on the cutting edge of trends and be willing to put yourself out there from a brand perspective in order to be successful. Status quo won't do. What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Cappasola: Begin with the end in mind; by knowing the goal or destination, you can build a plan to get there. This is also critical in keeping the brand focused and fostering the right framework for decision making and prioritization. What are the three most important keys to being an effective brand leader today?
Cappasola: A sense of purpose. You must know what the brand stands for and where the opportunities are, how it's defined in the market place, and how consumers view it. You also must be in tune with the culture of the brand and foster and nurture it to create alignment with the positioning.

[Two], the flexibility to adapt. In order to be successful, a brand must evolve, and that requires discipline, but it also means people must feel empowered to continuously develop and create.

[Three], passion and inspiration go a long way. Love what you do. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Cappasola: The biggest challenge is prioritizing. We've got to move the needle and fulfill our positioning in the market. This is where research and analysis comes in to guide us on how to use that brand position and that brand compass to make final decisions. What do you love you most about your job?
Cappasola: What I love most is the possibilities and the people. We're all challenged to innovate, to learn, and to get smarter about our guests. We have the ability to dig deep to find a great insight and to actually do something about it. So you can't be timid; you have to be willing to really dive right in, and that's exciting to me. I also love to see the people around me developing solutions and having success. It's invigorating.

We recognized a few years back that the brand was in a position of strength, relative to both where we felt the consumer was going and compared to most of the QSR competition, but wasn't taking full advantage. Del Taco had known strengths, like value, affordability, speed, and convenience, and all paired with food people loved. But what was fascinating was that the brand had latent strengths, like fresh preparation, fresh ingredients, and real produce; there was actually slicing and dicing and mixing and cooking happening in our kitchens, and no one was giving us credit for it. In fact, the brand hadn't really talked much about it because it was so focused on value.

So the challenge was to reposition the Del Taco brand for the future, from a traditional QSR brand to one that could deliver a QSR-plus value proposition. So our goal became to deliver the great value and convenience of a QSR, like Taco Bell or McDonald's, with food quality and preparation similar to fast-casual restaurants, like Chipotle. Basically, we needed to convince consumers that you didn't have to pay high prices to get great-tasting, fresh Mexican food, and that quality could be delivered through a drive thru ... no small task for a brand with 50 years of history. Can you tell me about the new brand positioning? How has the rebrand affected sales and consumer perception? I'm sure you guys are measuring that, right?
Cappasola: Our efforts are driving results and pretty meaningful improvements in our key performance indicators. From a consumer perspective, our strategy was reappraisal, and the brand is getting more credit for freshness and quality than before. Value and speed attributes have strengthened as well. We're also extremely proud of the sales improvements driven by the repositioning. This past quarter Del Taco announced our eighth consecutive quarter of positive sales. What's the hardest part of marketing in today's digital landscape? What keeps you up at night?
Cappasola: The hardest part is understanding your consumer and understanding the landscape of where you compete in a way that allows you to think innovatively about your strategies. At Del Taco, what has created clarity for us is a segmentation strategy. It focused on helping us better understand where we stood in the marketplace, where our market share was coming from, what occasions we were serving, and how consumers use Del Taco. We were able to build out profiles for the different types of guests we have and then ultimately develop an execution plan to meet them. Are you able to quantify marketing's effect on the organization?
Cappasola: There are two primary indicators that we look at. One is restaurant traffic. Are we seeing more guests coming to our restaurants? We're looking for more frequency from our current guests and activating new guests. Traffic is the key indicator of growth, and it's the lifeblood of our business, so we understand it at a restaurant level. It's also important to understand from a consumer standpoint. We do different studies with our guests to better understand how they're using us, when they're using us, and why they're using us. That's critical to connect the dots.

The second indicator is our brand tracker and how Del Taco ranks. Are our brand perceptions growing or receding? It's always important that our brand perceptions continue to improve. As we repositioned the brand, we watched attributes such as freshness and quality of the food, along with experience and service, and continue to keep a close eye on value. We've also honed in on guest satisfaction metrics through guest experience surveys that we do at the restaurant to help us understand how we're performing relative to the brand promise. The goal is to ensure that we're delivering on our promise in a way that resonates with guests, and these are the types of metrics that we feel are leading indicators of performance. So we're all over them. How much of your marketing goes to digital?
Cappasola: This year we've put a fifth of our media budget in digital, and that has actually doubled from a percentage standpoint in the last two years. The explosion of digital marketing opportunities has helped to level the playing field for small or midsize brands like Del Taco. It's exciting because now even a regional or a local brand that once couldn't afford to be on radio or television can still get a message out to prospective guests in a relatively inexpensive way. We love digital from that perspective and the fact that you can Zip-code target and layer on a variety of demographic and psychographic data to help to minimize the waste that comes with more traditional media channels.

In addition to leveling the playing field, it's a more efficient spend for Del Taco, and it's become an important part of our mix for both reasons. The metrics we have now to determine success of our digital marketing plan are a great start, but moving forward we want to close the loop and find a way to do that through attribution and CRM. We want to confirm that those that have seen or interacted with our ads are coming to our restaurants and build a deeper level of engagement with the brand.

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