Changemaker Interview: Mark Mears, CMO, Saladworks

I experienced a “blast from the past” this fall when the name Mark Mears jumped out at me from a press release trumpeting a variety of ways in which Saladworks, the restaurant chain of which he is CMO, was raising money for the national nonprofit No Kid Hungry.

I first met Mark back in 2009 when the Cheesecake Factory, where he was then CMO, ran a Halo Award-winning campaign called The Drive Out Hunger Tour supporting Feeding America. Over his 30+ year career, Mark has also led marketing teams at Mimi’s Café, Schlotztky’s and Noodles & Company and at each stop along the way he has made cause-related initiatives a major part of the chains’ strategies.

I recently virtually sat down with this Kansas City-based restaurant industry expert to talk about the intersection of cause and commerce in his work:

You’ve made cause-related campaigns a major part of your marketing mix at each company you’ve worked for since we first met over 10 years ago.  Why?

Mark Mears: All of us have a personal brand and mine has its own mission statement: “I don’t want to just make money and retire; I want to make a difference and inspire!” Making a difference in the lives of other people and inspiring them to do likewise creates a virtuous cycle of reciprocity where everyone benefits. I have chosen to work for brands whose mission is consistent with my personal brand, which always comes down to serving four key stakeholders — team members, guests, business partners and communities. Think of this model as a four-circle Venn diagram where each of these stakeholders overlap, but at the epicenter is the brand’s purpose.  

At Saladworks our purpose is to “Fuel Originality” — not just provide a meal to sate an appetite, but to help others fuel their passions and live their best life. That is what gets me up in the morning and helps me overcome obstacles or challenges along the way. Working with some outstanding cause partners over the years has taught me the importance of leveraging the assets, equities and resources of the brands I serve to help others along their growth journey. I have found that when you follow your purpose, it creates a positive ripple effect that can not only help build a business enterprise, but literally change the world.

Staff turnover is a huge challenge for the restaurant sector.  What’s an example of a philanthropic program that helped you build stronger bonds with employees? How?

Mark Mears: In addition to Personalization, Customization and Self-Expression, probably the number one characteristic of our Millennial target audience – including our restaurant-level team members who are of the same age and mindset – is Connection.  Team members want to do more than merely pull shifts and get paid every other week, they want to feel connected to an organization or cause that is bigger than themselves.  

Our Saladworks “Million Meals Challenge” – in partnership with No Kid Hungry – served as an opportunity to galvanize the culture of our organization; enabling our team members to engage both physically and emotionally in a noble cause to help feed hungry children in our communities. The photos and videos – as well as personal testimony – from several of our team members said it all.  You could clearly see their wide smiles – even behind their facemasks!

Saladworks - No Kid Hungry
SALADWORKS

Some businesspeople fear that asking for contributions at point of sale will turn off consumers, but you’ve done it again and again in many formats. What’s an example of a POS program that you felt enhanced your relationship with customers and perhaps even stimulated sales?   

Mark Mears: Well, I cannot speak for those who may feel that way, but my experiences have had just the opposite effect. Many people want to give back a portion of their time, talents and treasures, but may not know where to look. Providing our Saladworks guests with a very simple, straightforward and easy-to-afford way to participate – especially for such a non-partisan/non-political cause as feeding hungry children – gives them an opportunity to feel good about themselves and our brand.  

Taking it a step further by giving everyone who donates $1 an “I Joined The Team!” sticker as well as having them hand-sign a commemorative “carrot” to be hung on the wall of the restaurant leaves them with a very positive “feel-good” moment. And, for those guests who make a $5 donation, we give them the above along with a bounceback coupon for a FREE salad with purchase of a beverage on their next visit – a $10 retail value.

Finally, members of our Saladworks Rewards program earn points for their donations to No Kid Hungry, which also provides incentive to make incremental visits to Saladworks over time. Finally, we launched our new Kids Works menu and attached a donation of $.10 to No Kid Hungry for every meal sold.

Have you ever produced a program with a “giving back” component that didn’t work well? Please describe it and any lessons you learned from the experience.

Mark Mears: I have been very fortunate to have had nothing but positive experiences in cause partnerships with the brands I’ve served over the years including Pizza Hut, The Cheesecake Factory, Mimi’s Café, Schlotzsky’s, Noodles and Company and now Saladworks. The only potential for a negative experience can come from not bringing the organization along on the journey with you. Especially for a franchise-based system as all franchisees agree with the concept of giving back to their communities; however, some want to be less aggressive than others in terms of incentives for driving higher donations.

Have you found any of the nonprofits that you’ve worked with over the years to have been true partners, i.e. they brought something to the party beyond just accepting a donation? How can nonprofits be most helpful?

Mark Mears: I feel philanthropic organizations – both big and small – who partner with brands on corporate social responsibility initiatives — have gotten much more sophisticated and business savvy in the way they build their respective brands. They have employed traditional marketing strategies to add value to their CSR partners.

For example, linking with a national spokesperson who may be a sports, media or entertainment personality brings visibility and credibility to their cause. Getting placed in highly-viewed network television events (e.g., No Kid Hungry on The Emmy Awards with Jimmy Kimmel) provides another way to add value to the partnership. Finally, providing a cache of marketing assets (e.g., photos, videos, testimonials, social media templates, etc.) helps their CSR partners integrate both brand messages in an authentic way.   

In recent years the head of BlackRock, the Business Roundtable and other corporate groups have issued pronouncements that corporate social responsibility and concern about stakeholders (beyond shareholders) must be an important part of how companies are managed. Having worked for several restaurant firms in the last 20 years, have you seen a change in the seriousness with which CEOs and boards consider corporate social impact?

Mark Mears: Yes, most certainly. I have studied the impact on purpose over the past several years using my own personal experiences, observations of those brands whom I admire and research conducted by credible sources (e.g., HBR, Gallup, Best Places to Work, etc.).  There is compelling evidence supporting the importance of purpose – when authentically integrated into the Vision, Mission and Shared Values of an organization – and that it produces greater profitability throughout the enterprise. In the restaurant industry, that means our team members, guests, business partners and the communities we serve. For example, at Saladworks our purpose-based vision (“We believe in fueling the ‘originality’ of our Team Members, Guests, Business Partners and Communities; giving everyone an opportunity to live their best life.”) provides an authentic platform upon which to build mutually profitable cause partnerships.

Originally published on Forbes.com

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