The Magnificent 12 Digital Executives of the Year: A list that did not exist just two years ago. (Yes, that's how emerging these leaders are in understanding the New Age restaurant consumer.)
This is a good thing for future digital leaders in that the roadmaps and social consumer infrastructure of future digital brands are just now being built. This era of leadership is the fastest changing area in all of the restaurant business. Along the way, leaders have been faced with things like real-time response, social, mobile, and emerging platforms - all elements that play into strategies of brands for the future.
These leaders were selected by the RSMI analyst team, who poured over 30 execs that made the short list. We looked at them as a leader and at their brand as a performer. We then looked for key attributes that identify them as a different kind of leader. But most of all, we looked at how the social consumer viewed their business - after all, the consumer is the deciding factor of success.
Dan Kim: Red Mango
When Dan and I spoke on a social media panel together in 2008, little did I know he would be one of the executive pioneers in how business was to embrace the New Age of the digital and social brand. Dan is a creative visionary that looks beyond the everyday culture of our society and seeks out new trends that translate to new guests at Red Mango. Red Mango has been a Top 50 performer since the RSMI was created in 2010 and continues to set the pace for digital-thinking executives all across the industry.
Kat Cole: Cinnabon
As the emerging go-to CEO, Kat Cole has taken this newly earned executive role to a whole new level. Coming up the VP ranks at Hooters and working her way to the top of the class is the very attribute that puts Kat Cole on this Magnificent 12 list. Her tenacity to help others grow and be involved in the day-to-day operations is what sets her apart as a digital executive. Kat takes the power of Twitter very seriously and engages often with workers, guests and fans of the Cinnabon brand. More importantly, she maintains the authenticity of the brand, which connects to her own theory of business.
Don Fox: Firehouse Subs
Don is not only a visionary fast casual leader and the Chair of the Fast Casual Industry Council, but also leads one of the fastest growth brands in the super hot sandwich segment. The reason Don made this list is his unwavering strategy and long-term thinking of how to integrate digital and social into the fabric of Firehouse Subs. Many leaders are more "wait and see" - only few can actually see the vision and are resolved enough to act on it. This leadership has placed Firehouse at the top of the RSMI in many cases, and has shifted this brand to match pace with a very mobile and social audience that is on a massive growth spurt.
Rick Wion: McDonald's
As the edgy leader of digital and social at McDonald's, Rick has made some interesting decisions that has led McDonald's to achieve top honors in the RSMI. Fast performance has led McDonald's as the first brand to unseat Starbucks from its amazing eight quarter reign as top brand on the Restaurant Social Media Index. More importantly, Rick sees the future - albeit a digital one - for McDonald's, and implementing that future of a brand this size is a challenge not many are ready for. Rick seems poised to take the brand to a new place in the era of the tweet-powered, smartphone society we see today.
Nic Jammet: Sweetgreen
As one of the co-founders of Sweetgreen, Nic and his partners have taken a new approach to building a brand - a guerilla digital approach - with a concept called Sweetlife. This past year, the Sweetlife Festival, an amazing music culture fest driven by the brand's principles to eat well and live life with passion, had more than 25,000 people in attendance. This is more than just a marketing campaign for a brand - instead, they are building a culture that is led by digital actions that equate to real life actions. Digital has been the compelling factor for this brand's rise to cult status, and it will be interesting to see what this team has up its sleeve in the near future.
Tom Ryan: Smashburger
From the halls of McDonald's to the Fast Casual better burger segment, Tom is no newbie to the business. His passion and understanding of the American consumer seems to be reignited often. This understanding of the New Age consumer has led him and his team to create a social and digital launch of connected VIPs and local craft beer brewers, setting Smash apart from the rest of the burger clans. This approach is one that has propelled Smashburger to the top of the Restaurant Social Media Index for the past few quarters, and they are one of the few brands that are showing consistent growth in social sentiment and engagement.
Anthony Pigliacampo: Modmarket
From Boulder, Colorado, Modmarket is a small town market that houses the core of what digital is to the consumer. The focus of digital and in-store technology was always in the roadmap for this brand and its leaders. Anthony sees the new consumer with what seems to be x-ray vision, and matches it with a digital and social voice that is present in all that Modmarket does with full alignment to the brand. Modmarket is no longer a sleeper, but instead a brand that is destined to seize this new day of the digital social consumer.
Joe Sorge: AJ Bombers
As the pioneer of restaurants using Twitter, Joe Sorge has built his brand based around the understanding of the new power that consumers have - a power of choice, service and the overall experience. Joe took the hashtag to the heart of what AJ Bombers was in allowing consumers to connect with the restaurant like no other restaurant at the time. This helped Bombers to dominate the independent top ranking in the Restaurant Social Media Index for several quarters and has placed them at a very special place in the history of the New Age Restaurant.
Sam Fox: Fox Restaurant Group
Sam understands how to build brands. In fact, all 11 of them are housed under one centralized digital voice. It takes a visionary to see the connection to consumers like Sam Fox, and better yet, it takes a leader to place this many brands at the stake of digital and social as a key area of the brand's communication strategy. Best of all, it's paying off with many of his brands cracking into the Top 250 in the Restaurant Social Media Index. As an independent brand creator, his new style of brand creation lends itself well to the approach of digital brand building with limited budget and a passionate fan and consumer group.
We think no Magnificent 12 List would be complete without the creator of Shake Shack, which is more than a restaurant and burger place. In just a few years, it has become an American Cult Icon, all led by the vision of Union Square Hospitality Group and the acceptance of the new digital consumer. Danny's team has created several digital ecosystems that match pace with how the consumer gets information about the brand with intuitive, easy-to-use design that embraces the new restaurant consumer - from a smartphone experience to the in-restaurant experience.
John Kunkel: 50 Eggs Restaurant Group
After many years of creating Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, John's real passion was to create brands of all types. He took his learning from the digital efforts of Lime and parlayed them into a brand-building engine at 50 Eggs with four new concepts on the ground in the past 18 months. His focus on connecting the pulse of Miami via a digital footprint is the new roadmap to building brands with digital and social communities.
Rick Bayless: Xoco
As the proverbial social chef, Rick is a compelling digital savant of using social as a medium to spread the word about his work and emerging brands. Best of all, Rick is approachable as a digital frontman for his empire, and is considered to be one of the top performing "Cheflebrities" with social. He actually gets it and understands this shift in our mobile social society.
Each of the aforementioned Digital Executives has made the Magnificent 12 list for different reasons, but all finalists have one thing in common: each were willing to take an initial risk to maintain an 'ahead-of-the-curve' position in branding their business, and continue to evolve despite the fluidity of the social and digital sphere. It will be exciting to see what these, and others, bring to the table as social, digital and mobile continues to evolve.
The three Digital Executive of the Year #RIZMY Award winners will be announced at the First Annual Foodservice Digital Marketing Summit, taking place on September 24th in Scottsdale, Arizona. Click here for more information about the event, and check out the other nominees here.