Sweetgreen’s Brand Chief Is Trying to Reimagine Fast Food for Gen Z

Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and chief brand officer of the salad chain, talks about his plans to reach younger consumers, including shifting from a millennial to a Gen Z mind-set

A Sweetgreen restaurant in Boston. The company has created a small, inside agency ‘to move faster and at the speed of culture,’ says Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and chief brand officer.

Photo: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg News

香蕉视频苹果下载As Sweetgreen expands its presence around the country, the salad chain founded by millennials is investing in marketing to Gen Z after the worst of Covid-19. The effort includes a redesigned website and app debuting this month, as well as a partnership with tennis champion Naomi Osaka —a Sweetgreen salad named after her was introduced earlier this month.

WSJ spoke with Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer Nathaniel Ru about its goal to become ubiquitous and about reimagining fast food as healthy with younger people in mind.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

WSJ香蕉视频苹果下载: How did the pandemic affect your marketing plans? What have you learned from it?

Mr. Ru: We used Covid as a little bit of a canvas for experimentation. In January 2020, we launched Sweetgreen’s native delivery experience, where you go on the app and order delivery. The timing of that, plus work we did with digital ordering, really helped us through Covid. We rolled out Plates, our answer to dinner and unlocking the dinner daypart, and also Collections, which was like our first version of personalizing menus.

WSJ香蕉视频苹果下载: You’ve said you want to be a healthy fast-food chain. Are you concerned about associating your brand with a category often stigmatized for unhealthy ingredients?

Mr. Ru: We like leaning into that tension a bit. We just believe fast food can also be good food. Fast food doesn’t need to have a stigma. Our vision one day is to be as ubiquitous as traditional fast food, but more honest and transparent.

WSJ: You describe Sweetgreen as a “millennial brand” since it was founded by millennials, including yourself. What are you doing differently to reach the younger generation as you continue to expand?

Mr. Ru: One of our focuses is just trying to understand deeper how Gen Z thinks about food. I’m an older millennial now [Mr. Ru is 36], and so I think it was a natural thing to market to ourselves in a certain way, and as we’ve grown up through this business we’re trying to make sure we still connect to that next generation.

Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and chief brand officer of Sweetgreen, in 2017.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

That’s why we wanted to build a small agency inside Sweetgreen to move faster and at the speed of culture. It’s been really helpful.

WSJ: What’s an example of the kind of work that reaches Gen Z?

Mr. Ru: There are ways to bring food and culture together to create experiences through music festivals [the company hosted a music and food gathering called the Sweetlife Festival in Maryland from 2011 to 2016] and collaborations with amazing chefs. We did a bowl with Naomi Osaka, the tennis player. Naomi is 23; she really speaks to the next generation.

香蕉视频苹果下载We’ve also spent a lot of time on TikTok making recipe videos.

WSJ香蕉视频苹果下载: How are you using your new app to glean data on consumers’ habits and inform your marketing?

Mr. Ru: We look at everything from dietary preferences and history of orders to what you normally get. What we want to do in the future is personalize your digital ordering experience on the Sweetgreen app. If you don’t like meat and are gluten-intolerant, we want to make sure they don’t show up on your app.

香蕉视频苹果下载We look up to Spotify where they’ve done a really great job with Discover Weekly. We’d love to do the same with food. We’re just in the nascent stages.

WSJ香蕉视频苹果下载: You have 124 locations in more than 12 states, with five openings already this year. How do you balance your regional and national marketing efforts now that you’re growing?

Mr. R香蕉视频苹果下载u: As we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve had an opportunity to work with influential partners like Naomi and David Chang [the well-known chef behind the Momofuku food brand]. We’re investing more in national advertising, paid performance marketing, out of home and direct mail and a little bit of OTT [over the top, or streaming TV]. It’s a diverse mix of spend.

WSJ: When you launched your first location in 2007, you had very little data, and none of the founders had marketing experience. How did you generate awareness?

Mr. Ru: Our first restaurant outside Georgetown’s campus did pretty well, so we got the confidence to build a second. We opened those doors in April 2009. We had zero customers. The only marketing we knew how to do at that time was to make healthy food and play music and DJ.

Went to the Guitar Center, bought a 400 loudspeaker [a large portable speaker] put it outside and faced it toward the park. Across the street was one of the busiest Starbucks.香蕉视频苹果下载 If we could get people from that side of the street to our side, we could do it.

It kind of worked. It turned into the Sweetlife Festival.

Write to Alexandra Bruell at alexandra.bruell@wsj.com

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