Buffalo Wild Wings CMO who led creative revival departs after less than 2 years

Dive Brief:

  • Seth Freeman stepped down from his post as CMO of Buffalo Wild Wings earlier this month, brand president Lyle Tick confirmed in a statement to Restaurant Business Magazine. The company is actively searching for a replacement, Tick said.
  • Freeman was nearing the two-year mark of his tenure, and no reason was given for his departure. The executive’s work is credited with helping to support a turnaround for the chain that was acquired by Inspire Brands in February 2018.
  • Freeman joined Buffalo Wild Wings six months after the acquisition, according to Ad Age, and quickly shuffled the brand’s agency roster, tapping The Martin Agency to lead creative duties. Under Freeman’s stewardship, Buffalo Wild Wings enacted a more aggressive social media strategy and returned to the types of offers, like buy-one, get-one deals, that were not allowed under its prior management, per Restaurant Business.

Dive Insight:

Previously a struggling franchise, Buffalo Wild Wings has in the past few years seen a return to consumer relevance driven by innovative marketing concepts developed under Freeman. The executive helped to successfully reposition the chain following its acquisition by Inspire Brands, which also owns Sonic Drive-In, Jimmy John’s and Arby’s, and led its adoption of the more casual, free-wheeling tone that’s become popular in the restaurant category.

Freeman’s sudden departure suggests further changes could be in order for Buffalo Wild Wings’ messaging strategy, which would follow precedent set by its sister brands. Sonic earlier this year dropped a long-running “Two Guys” campaign in favor of more family-focused ads, while Jimmy John’s in March named Darin Dugan, previous VP of marketing at Sonic, as CMO.

Buffalo Wild Wings is currently dealing with the dual pressures of mass restaurant closures and the cancellation of live sports — a major draw for its casual dine-in business and the pillar of a recently-struck deal with BetMGM — due to the coronavirus pandemic. The coronavirus has already upset large marketing campaigns from the brand, including a canceled effort around this year’s NCAA March Madness basketball tournament that would have seen contest winners sleep over at restaurant locations refurbished in the style of a sports-themed bed-and-breakfast.

The unique experiential activation, while axed at the last minute, is representative of the types of ideas Freeman brought to the table at Buffalo Wild Wings. In taking over as CMO, Freeman was transparent about tackling the company’s stodgy image problems, telling Ad Age last year that he selected The Martin Agency due to their blunt criticism of the brand.

The partnership managed to draw a lot of media chatter thanks to its edgier approach to marketing. The agency’s first work for Buffalo Wild Wings last March was a “Jewel Stool” barstool designed to provide comfort to vasectomy patients trying to sit and watch college basketball. Other recent campaigns included rebranding the hip-hop group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony as Boneless Thugs-N-Harmony in honor of boneless wings and a “Football Prenup” faux contract between football fans and their loved ones that established healthier terms around obsessive sports viewing habits.

Buffalo Wild Wings isn’t alone in experiencing a marketing leadership shakeup of late. AT&T brand chief Fiona Carter, lauded for campaigns that addressed topics like gender inequality and women in sports, will step down at the end of the month, Axios reported Tuesday, citing an internal memo. CPG giant Kimberly-Clark earlier this week named Zena Arnold to the newly-created position of chief digital and marketing officer, while spirits giant Pernod Ricard appointed Pam Forbus as CMO for North America.

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