Robin Blanchette, CEO and Founder, Norton Creative (Houston, TX)
Robin Blanchette is CEO and Founder at Norton Creative, an agency focused “narrow and deep” on restaurant and hospitality branding. Their primary client base includes multi-unit operators, mid-size and larger chains, and franchises. They also work with independents . . . but never with conflicting brands or direct competitors in the same time frame.
Over the eight years of its existence, the agency has worked with over 150 different restaurant brands, developing strategies, doing creative work, finding whitespace, differentiating positions, and designing brand standards that allow room for franchisees to “own their businesses” while maintaining what Robin calls “brand purity.” Clients have included Buffalo Wild Wings, TGIFridays, Bob Evans Farms, Mellow Mushroom, Friendly’s, Fuddruckers, Sonic, and Luby’s . . . .
Robin started her career on the client side and said that the agencies she worked with “didn’t get it.” She makes sure that the creative her agency produces not only works on the marketing side . . . but addresses questions such as: “What is your business problem you’re trying to solve?” “What is your objective?” and translates the creative solution into business results in terms of sales, traffic, and profitability.
Norton Creatives architecture and interiors team helps develop brand architectures that will be scalable to two or more locations so that a single site operation can seamlessly “grow.” When the creative team designs menus, the layout is engineered for profitability. The firm also provides carry-out packaging design and merchandising services, which have increased in importance during the pandemic.
In this interview, Robin talks about the challenges restaurants face . . . and what successful restaurants have done to succeed over the past couple of years. She reminds us that restaurants have very tight margins and notes that the number of restaurants in the US is down 100,000 from pre-pandemic days. Those that have succeeded are those that are willing to do “whatever it takes.” In particular, Robin says many have developed new ways to deliver to their customers, reduced the number of selections on their menus, and gotten more efficient in their operations.
Robin can be reached on her agency’s website at https://norton-creative.com/, on LinkedIn, and on Instagram.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Robin Blanchette, CEO, and Founder at Norton Creative based in Houston, Texas. Welcome to the podcast, Robin.
ROBIN: Thank you for having me, Rob. This is great.
ROB: Great to have you here. Why don’t you give us a focus in on the superpowers of Norton Creative? I think you have a pretty distinctive story for us.
ROBIN: Absolutely. We say we go narrow and deep. We’re focused really only on the restaurant and hospitality industries. We do creative work, find whitespace, differentiating positions, ways to bring the brand to life in this industry. We’re experts in hospitality.
To be honest, I just have to say that this industry versus any other industry is really one of service, and that’s what we love about it. It’s really about the people. I mean, you could see through the pandemic, the restaurant owners/operators, independent chains, they all rolled up their sleeves. They’re completely open and humbled to be in an environment to serve people, and that’s what we do at Norton. That’s why we focus solely on this industry.
ROB: It’s fascinating. I’ve known some very small agencies that try to focus in on very mom n’ pop restaurants. You see really small clients – and sometimes they have bigger restaurants, too. Where is your sweet spot? Are you working with local, single location? Are you looking mostly at multi-location or franchise or chain? How does that fit your mix?
ROBIN: We really are in both, but I will say our primary client is multi-unit operators, mid-size and larger chains. We do independents. We have an architecture and interiors team, so anything the guest really sees from a restaurant perspective is what we focus on. Architecture and interiors, we do large chains, but we also do a lot of independents. Chefs that have been maybe working for a brand and then they want to create their own brand. We’ve got a client that wanted to start a cookie shop, and we created a cookie shop. She’s got one location; she started as a virtual brand and she was like, “Now I want to open an actual, four-walls place.”
So, most of our clients are large chains and mid-size chains, but I will say we’re a creative group of people, and if you know creative design type folks, they want some really unique and independent stuff to do. So we like to balance it out for them, for the team, because they like to do unique, niche-y kind of stuff too. You know what I mean?
ROB: Absolutely. To that point a little bit, when you’re talking about a restaurant that is investing in architecture and design, it’s still somebody thinking a little bit bigger than someone who took over a lease, someone else moved out, they’re moving in, they want to sell their mom’s favorite sandwich. I mean, maybe there’s a good place for it, but I hear you talking about investing in a brand architecture that might be able to scale out two more locations, even if someone’s starting with one.
ROBIN: Absolutely. I think right now, too, certainly during the pandemic and what we’re thinking of as post-pandemic – let’s put out the positive vibes there that this is post-pandemic – there’s a lot of folks that are looking to take their one-unit, two-unit, three-unit and franchise. There’s a lot of franchise development agreements happening right now. We work with a regional chain out of Houston called Shipley Do-Nuts, and if you’re a Texan, you know very well what that brand’s all about because you’re born and raised with it. But they’re franchising rapidly across the country.
To be able to get brand standards and get your box right, get things lined up so a potential franchisee, or even a potential buyer for that matter, can look at it and go, “Yeah, I can expand this, it’s obvious” – Wahlburgers is one of our clients based out of Austin, and they’re doing the same thing. It’s like, let’s create a brand position, a story of your standards so that we can now execute this in multiple ways across the world and across the U.S.
ROB: Franchisees seem like a particular challenge. A lot of times you’ll see some really well-run restaurants, even gas stations, tend to not be franchised. So how do you think about the design of the brand, the design of the collateral in a way that is easier for a franchisee to succeed? That seems like quite a challenge.
ROBIN: I think some of it has to do with development agreements and how the franchisor decides to set up the boundaries and rules and how they also might hold franchisees accountable for those. From a franchisee perspective, there does have to be space – I worked for Applebee’s corporate for many years, and we had an incredible group of franchisees and business owners that owned lots of different chains, lots of different restaurants, and we would have local walls that they could interchange their own local flair, if you will. So, there are ways for franchisees to make it their own, but you’re buying the sign and paying royalties towards that brand.
For us, when we create pieces or brand standards, there has to be some sort of give and take there for a franchisee. It’s their business, it’s their livelihood, it’s their company. My philosophy is around brand purity. I believe that individual brands should take up their own space – not that nobody has a competitor, but in terms of creating a brand from scratch or even trying to differentiate one – look, there’s lots of wing places in this world, but Buffalo Wild Wings are the only people that do it their way. They’re the only one that focuses on a gathering place for sports and the best wings, or whatever. So I think about it as brand purity, and franchisees think of it that way too. That’s why they’re buying in.
ROB: Yeah, Buffalo Wild Wings you mentioned is a client of yours, I believe.
ROB: It is a fascinating thing; there’s kind of a hole in the market to an extent. You say, what is the national sports bar chain that is actually going to deliver on something you expect to receive from it? It’s not quite there. We have a couple local chains; some of them die, some of them come, some of them go. And then there is the big yellow and black sign that you can see from the highway.
I think it’s interesting to turn a corner here and talk about the origin story of Norton Creative. You mentioned your own background on the brand side. I think it’s very credible. What led you to move from the corporate side and the brand side and take some risks by starting your own shop?
ROBIN: It’s very scary. [laughs] I’ll say that. It was a very scary proposition. I joke when people are starting their own restaurant brands or whatever; I’m like, I was googling how to start a company. I’m not going to lie about that. That’s the God’s honest truth. “What forms do I need to fill out?” or whatever.
But the impetus for it was – if you’ve spent any time at all on the client side – I hired all the big agencies and many small agencies. I’ve gone through the formal pitch processes that take months and I’ve hired somebody out of the blue. I’ve been on that side primarily. So I really knew what was missing, I think. That was part of it. Gosh, I had great agencies and really talented creative people, and certainly all the major consulting companies, too, come in, like the big decks from the Big Three or whatever.
What’s missing is I could never find anybody that could solve my creative conundrum out of the gate. They didn’t really get it on the agency side. Now that I’m on the other side, we work really hard to get it, like “What is your business problem you’re trying to solve?” Not just your marketing problem, not just your creative problem, but what’s your objective? We come back to that every time. And every agency I ever had would bring beautiful work, but it didn’t actually go to work. I hear other people say that all the time, like “Our creative works,” but ours really is about sales, traffic, and profitability.
It’s even hard to train creatives a lot of times in that, but think about it; when we’re doing a menu design, we do not do menu design without engineering, which is profitability work. Where do the items go? Where does the eye go for the guest? Where’s the heat of the person? We do all of the backend stuff on that because I don’t want to design a menu, roll it out, and then your best-in-the-world item fails because we’ve shoved it someplace.
That’s a long way of answering your question in that we really understand, I really understood, what was missing. We have a tendency to say things like, look, I am not going to give you a 100-page deck to answer a very short question of “What are we best in the world at?” Let’s write a paragraph. It’s born out of some sort of truth, right? If we’re going to have to explain this to the guest for two hours, it’s never going to work. What is it in its most simple form? What’s your brand about?
I think what has made a difference – we’ve been around eight years now. Somebody told me when I first started Norton, “It’s like owning a boat. The best day is the day you get it and the day you sell it.” [laughs] The in between is all the work. It’s just hard work. And that’s where we are now. We’re in the middle of the work. And it was born out of “We get you because we’ve been there. We understand.”
ROB: You have a very deep experience in the industry. How do you go about taking somebody who may be very talented, and they may have even delivered a very good quality of work across a range of industries – how do you bring them into the restaurant world? How do you build that into culture, build that into training, build that into process?
ROBIN: First of all, we’ve all eaten at restaurants, so it’s not a stretch to be like, “Do you know what it’s like to be a restaurant guest and read a menu?” That’s the first point of contact for the most part. So that’s not a hard hurdle to overcome. It’s not like I’m teaching somebody about the pipeline across Alaska or something. It’s not something hard to teach. People get it, and they get the restaurant experience.
In terms of the underneath of it all, some of it’s just teaching and getting in there, being thrown in and saying, “Look, here’s how we engineer our menu. Here’s how we build a box to make the customer journey be the best. Here’s how we create stories.” Some of it is just teaching, and we really do like to hire more junior folks and train them into the industry. Again, I’m really focused on our leaders. In the restaurant industry, we talk about “train the trainer.” We train the trainer a lot here, and we use a lot of the way that restaurant operators train somebody who is a 16-year-old host and how they greet the guests and how a server might greet somebody, how a kitchen might move quickly but still provide quality food. We use those same fundamentals for what we do every day. I don’t want a piece of work that goes out that is not the best it can be. We’ve got expo. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know what expo is. You’re checking the plate before it goes to the guest.
So, we have folks in place that get it, and we also hire a lot of people who’ve been on the other side. There used to be a thing where it was like in-house creatives are maybe not that great. They haven’t worked across a variety of industries of whatever. But in-house creatives on the restaurant side get it. They know they’ve got to turn it quick. There’s somebody standing over their shoulder saying “Make that blue, make that purple” or whatever. They understand the language, too. So, we hire people like that as well.
ROB: Got it. You mentioned packaging; are you also even in packaging design and takeout? Has that been part of your world for the past couple of years especially?
ROBIN: Oh my gosh, yes, and long before that, you can imagine. One of the very first projects that I worked on when I was at Applebee’s was creating Carside To Go. You might remember it back in the late ’90s, when that all started for some of the bigger casual dining chains. All the pitfalls that go into that are the same ones we have today, which is like the guest doesn’t want to get out of their car, and how are we going to be of service to them? So yeah, we do full to-go packaging. Again, it’s built out of the brand.
With Buffalo Wild Wings, we’re super flexible. They have a lead creative agency, which is the Martin Agency, which we’re huge fans of – huge fans – and we do all of the menu and merchandising work for them. So we all work together. When it comes to things like packaging, we’re working on packaging along with other folks, many times, working with operations, working cross-functionally with either other agencies or also working within the organization cross-functionally. Lots of different teams. We’re not just working with the marketing teams; we’re working with the development teams and real estate teams, things like that.
ROB: Right. A challenge that strikes me – I think this is a challenge brand side as well – when you talk about something like package design, that’s kind of an intermittent need. Same thing with internal architecture. Some people – maybe you’ll tell me differently – don’t tweak their menu that often. So how do you juggle having these capabilities that are not a persistent need, but it’s a recurring one? It’s kind of that challenging “usually but not always” need. How do you juggle some of those specialties?
ROBIN: First of all, the way we’re set up, we certainly have retained clients that we work on stuff every single day. We’re in and out all year long, and those are transformational partnerships where we are in it. Everything they need, they call us. And then we also do a lot of project work. When somebody has a need – when Smoothie King needs menu design and engineering work and profitability work, or Red Lobster – we just finished doing some work for Red Lobster – they will call us and say, “We need this work. We’re not ready yet” – especially right now in the middle of the pandemic, the government shut down our industry, in effect, in 2020.
What’s happening right now in the industry is we have lots of folks that are calling and saying, “Hey, look, I’m not ready yet for the full package of services because I just can’t. We had 50 people in our marketing department; now we have three. We can’t do it yet, but hey, can you do this for us right now? Can you build this campaign? Can you do this for the next six months?” or whatever. And of course we can. Again, we’re of service. We’d like the transformational partnership because obviously – and you understand – when you have those retained relationships, you can really add more value long term, and certainly it helps from a resourcing perspective internally and the P&L. But from just how we can handle the intermittent needs, we do. We just say yes.
ROB: What are you seeing when it comes to – some places have probably reopened pretty well, but some places have probably reopened hoping that they’re going to be able to keep doing exactly what they did before. What are you seeing change in the actual function of restaurants, the marketing, the design? There’s obviously this mobile and pickup version of things, but are people going to be able to relaunch these big box, large format restaurants with crowds? How are they having to adapt their space for the new reality?
ROBIN: Fortunately and unfortunately, we’ve got hundreds of thousands fewer restaurants than we did before the pandemic. You’ll have to check me on the number, but I think it’s 100,000 fewer restaurants in the United States from before the pandemic. For the restaurants remaining, the ones that fought, rolled up their sleeves, did their best to try to survive – PPP and ERC and all the ways in which – those chains are I would say healthier than ever. They reduced menu skus in terms of number of items, because menus were getting really big. It’s hard to delete stuff because you’re like, “Ah, I have that one guest that likes that item.” It’s like, well, let’s figure it out.
So, menus got smaller. Restaurants had to be much more efficient in terms of how they were utilizing their supply chain. Obviously there are labor issues and all of these things. I would say from my purview, restaurants are more efficient than they were before, and there’s people hungry for eating out. They’re hungry for entertainment. My husband went to a car show/boat show thing this weekend and he’s like, “It was like a mob scene.” People are like, “We’ll take whatever, just to walk around and find something to do.”
But people are back in restaurants again, and they’re saying, “We want that.” In terms of the large chains, I think it’s gotten some guests back. People are spending maybe a little less money. They’re saying, “Maybe I was eating at the high-end fine dining before; now, you know what? I’m good. I would love to eat at TGI Friday’s. I miss my potato skins.”
ROB: It certainly makes sense. I’ve seen all over the map – one of our favorite pre-pandemic places, I think they still don’t know what they want to be post-COVID. Their dining room is in a state of disarray, and they’re like, “You can take your food and sit outside and eat it if you want, but we don’t even know what to do with our dining room.” They used to have an ice cream scooper, and they just dumped it. I don’t know if they know what they want to be when they’re done. But you see these brand transformations where their delivery was actually really, really good. And I’ve never seen them do free delivery, and they really nailed it. I’ve been surprised by what it can be.
We’re in Atlanta; you’re in Houston. These are larger footprints. This is not New York City where you go pick up something around the corner or some guy walks something up to your door. 10 minutes is 5 miles.
ROBIN: Right. Add traffic. But I will say the restaurants that are killing it right now are the ones that were like, “We’re going to do whatever it takes. We’re going to figure this out. What do people need? What am I going to do?” There was a whole period of time with lots of phone calls around self-delivery versus the third-party delivery folks. The third-party delivery folks were taking most of the margin in restaurants, and margins are very lean.
I don’t know what the general public thinks, but I will say that restaurants are not just printing money out there. It’s a hard business. It’s hard work, and the people are caring and of service. They want to provide the way in which – like my local restaurant, like what you’re talking about, did everything they possibly could do. I’m like, I can’t believe this bag of food showed up at my front door hot in five minutes. This is crazy. Way to go, guys.
But yeah, lots of weird things that happen, but it was really born out of the grit of the industry. Think about things like virtual brands that are working out of kitchens. People are taking those down day parts and they’re using them to try to make profit to keep those teams going. They’re paying people by day.
I think the biggest thing, Rob, that I was just thinking about is some of it – the brands that are the big chains that really have the dollars to be able to invest in technology – and I know you guys operate in this space – you can see the difference, the folks that have made the shift to these really turnkey technology platforms and point of sale platforms. The ones that can’t do it, I think they’re struggling more.
ROB: Yeah. It’s still definitely shifting. One of your friends, the Buffalo Wild Wings folks – I went to online order the other day and they said, “Do you want to order from our kitchen?” It’s only pickup and delivery. It’s not even a ghost kitchen. They’re putting it front and center to people and saying, “Look, we’re here too. This is a pickup spot and it’s a place that’s closer to you when you want delivery.” I don’t know – maybe you helped them architect that. But it was evident to me, “Wait, this is closer to me. They’ll probably get me my food faster and warmer.”
We’re just down the road from our friends at Chick-fil-A’s headquarters, and what they’re doing with their drive-thrus is herculean. Whereas I’ll go to Burger King and their drive-thru is closed or it’s taking half an hour. I go to Chick-fil-A, they’re cranking through 50 cars in 5 minutes, and I don’t even know –
ROBIN: If I could pick up my prescriptions from Chick-fil-A, I would. [laughs] They are gold standard, man. Gold standard. You’re absolutely right. Their speed of service – but they figured it out. That’s what I’m saying. Just think about it. You’ve got all this dead space, and you’ve got cooks in the kitchen, and you have this time. If you’re Friday’s or Applebee’s or Chili’s, there’s a dead time where nobody’s eating. What are you going to do with that? Let’s be more efficient. Let’s figure out how to be of service more. I appreciate that.
ROB: It is that commitment. I’m sure you’ve done this as a firm; it’s that commitment to figuring it out. We had a local megachurch here that, in April of 2020, said, “We are closed through the end of the year.” The clarity of vision involved in that – you’re telling everyone, “We’re going to figure it out. We’re not waiting around. We’re not waiting for this thing to be over. We’re going to lean straight into it and do what it takes to get through and emerge on the other side who we need to be, with whatever changed.”
ROBIN: I saw that with restaurants, too.
ROB: Robin, as you reflect on the growth of the firm so far, what are some lessons you’ve learned that you would want to go back and tell yourself as you’re heading out of the brand world and the brand side and you’re going to build your own firm to serve them? What would you tell yourself? Lessons learned.
ROBIN: Oh man, lessons learned. Oh gosh. I’ve got to say this out loud? I would have been more confident about my own abilities and the abilities of our team from the get-go. And when I say that, we always did great work from the beginning, and always had really big clients from the beginning. What is it, the cobbler’s kids have no shoes? [laughs]
We did not market ourselves. We didn’t talk about the great things we did. We said, “We’re not ego-driven, we’re not about awards,” all the things we would say. “We’re not about getting awards. We just do the good work, we’re super humble, we’re scrappy, we fly under the radar.” Those are all the things that we’d say about ourselves, but at the same time, the humility in it is totally our personality. That’s just how we are. But we should be standing up and saying, “Oh my gosh, look at our great work. We are so proud of it.” You can say that and still be humble about what you do and not have this big fat ego about things. I would say I would’ve done that earlier.
Coming out of the pandemic, we started doing that. We’re like, oh my gosh, we’ve touched over 150 different restaurant brands in eight years. There’s no agency that can say that. We’ve touched so many of them and loved them, to be honest, and built real, meaningful relationships with people that we care and cherish. I wish we would’ve waved our Norton flag from the beginning. Better late than never, but now’s the time for us to say, we’re proud of what we do. We’re proud of our industry. We think they’re amazing people.
I’m telling you, even going back to the conferences, the restaurant and hospitality focused, the keynote speakers – it’s all changed. People are like, “We’re so grateful for our teams. They’re leading from a place of optimism and hope and empathy” – things that I didn’t really hear 20 years ago. It was all about the almighty dollar. Now we’re all very Simon Sinek, Adam Grant, hope and optimism focused. I think it’s what we’ve been through. That’s what I’d tell myself.
ROB: It’s an interesting journey there. One challenge I can imagine is the perception of conflict and conflicting clients. These people have chicken, these people have pizza, those people have chicken, those people have pizza, they have sandwiches. How do you address the challenge of conflict, both the actual concerns of it as well as the perception? I think that’s a common thing to many people, but maybe especially in the low-margin restaurant world.
ROBIN: I think the perception is changing in the agency world a little bit. I certainly, when I hired McCann back in the day for their amazing TV and creative work – love those people – that was a really important thing to me that we made sure there was no creative conflicts in their agency. I did think that at the time as a client and as a CMO. I did think, “Do I really care about that?” [laughs] I really just want the best creative minds, and surely they’re not taking work from one team and giving it to another.
And that really is true. They’re not doing that. At least in my view, no agency is doing that. We certainly don’t do it. We do conflicting work sometimes, but for the most part all of our retained clients, there’s no conflict. And we try to keep it that way. Any sort of transformational partnership that I think of, long-term relationship – like Fogo de Chao is one of our big clients who we love. They’re amazing. Look at them for leadership in the restaurant industry. They’re just amazing. We’re not going to take on another Brazilian steakhouse, for instance. We’re just not going to do that. We’re very focused on what we can try to solve for them.
So, the retained relationships, we keep that very, very clean. In terms of the project work, it comes in and out anyway. We would rethink that, probably, if they were going to become a long-term partner. But we’re pretty careful about that. We’re never working on conflicting brands or direct competitors at the same time, ever. That’s a hard no.
ROB: Yeah, I can certainly see how Brazilian steakhouse is a niche; it’s hard to define – perhaps you can, but it’s hard to define separate experiences in that world. It also strikes me that that’s a place where hospitality has really lived at a chain level for a long time. The real hospitality in the hospitality industry can be missing quite often.
What I see across a lot of your brands that you work with is I don’t necessarily even think about them on a list. I think about them as the place that you go to that is – you mentioned Applebee’s, but then you mentioned something like Fogo de Chao, you mentioned something like Macaroni Grill. It’s not the fifth version of that thing; it’s almost the only version of what it is, and what I think of when I go there. It sounds like that’s what you’re aiming for – helping them be the only thing of their kind. A Buffalo Wild Wings is the experience that it is, and it’s not one of your top five chicken wings sports bar places.
ROBIN: Right. I think that’s important for any brand, including Norton. That’s why we say narrow and deep. Be who you are. Be comfortable in your own skin. We play the “what if?” game a lot. This brand’s known for potato skins; what if they did this?
You know, in this service business, now that I’m on the outside of it, the idea really is to provide what we in Texas and Louisiana call “lagniappe,” which is the added value, the special thing, the thing that maybe nobody has thought of to be helpful. How are we going to present menus that’s something that’s different than everyone else, or whatever. For all of the brands that we work on, what are they best in the world at? That comes down to something as simple as what’s on their menu. What are they best in the world at? Even if it’s not a profitable item, what can they be known for?
All of us as people and as brands deserve that. You’ve heard that term, probably, and used it in your lifetime, about “death by a thousand cuts.” I think there are so many brands that you get different leadership teams that come in, different people, everybody’s got a new idea, and then you get off task. Next thing you know, you don’t even recognize your own brand. So, we work on that.
ROB: Really, really fascinating firm, fascinating work. Great progress, Robin. Obviously, you’re working with household names, and ones that have pushed through the pandemic. When people want to connect with you, Robin, and want to connect with Norton, where should they go to find you?
ROBIN: Obviously, our website is an easy way. Certainly LinkedIn. We’re Norton Creative. I always say you can call me. You can reach out to me in any form or fashion. It’s all out there. We certainly have a marketing director, Jesse Dickerson, who is managing all of the day-to-day business development and activities. Now we aren’t the cobbler’s kid who has no shoes; we are trying to do a little bit better at talking about what we do. So certainly website and Instagram, LinkedIn. We’re all out there.
ROB: Wonderful. Robin, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and sharing. We are glad to hear your story and your expertise. Thank you so much.
ROBIN: Thank you.
ROB: Be well. Bye.
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