Brand Strategy

A conversation with Sweetgreen’s chief brand officer, Nathaniel Ru

Despite growing nationally, Ru told us the brand’s goal is to keep it local.
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Nathaniel Ru

· 4 min read

Much like its salads, Sweetgreen’s marketing strategy is a combination of many organic ingredients.

“Traditionally speaking, we haven’t spent a lot on paid marketing as a percentage of revenue,” Nathaniel Ru, chief brand officer and co-founder of Sweetgreen, told us, though he didn’t share figures.

Despite two consecutive quarters of lowered revenue outlooks in 2022, the salad chain has expanded into new territories, like the Midwest, with its CEO saying in March that it plans to have 1,000 locations by 2030. As the chain grows, Ru said it’s looked to the marketing playbook of its early days in DC by focusing on generating new customers through organic, on-the-ground activations and word of mouth.

We spoke with Ru about how the company adapts regionally, what it looks for in a collab, and what’s on the horizon in 2023.

Locally grown

According to Ru, the company’s focus on organic activations is known internally as “intimacy at scale,” built on the idea that even as the company expands, a Sweetgreen should feel local to the area.

Part of that is adapting to new audiences. As the company expands to suburban locations, Ru said it’s looking to also appeal more directly to families, with “Sweetlane” drive-thrus, which first opened in Illinois, and kids’ meals being piloted in Minnesota and Indiana.

To get the word out about new locations, Ru said Sweetgreen is leaning into local activations and events. For a recent Minneapolis opening, the company partnered with local chef Ann Kim to create a bowl exclusive to the area.

“Awareness is built through referrals,” Ru said, noting that events or collabs with local chefs can help the brand feel “like part of the community.”

Finding the perfect mix

When it comes to collaborations, Sweetgreen isn’t always thinking locally. In 2021, it teamed up with tennis player Naomi Osaka and doubled down on its partnership after she withdrew from the French Open for mental health reasons. This year, it brought NBA basketball player Devin Booker into the mix.

A key aspect in deciding who to work with, Ru said, is ensuring they feel “organic and authentic” to the brand. “There’s such a direct connection between food and what fuels you and sport,” he said, adding that Osaka and Booker were customers first, which is how they were introduced to the brand.

By working with notable figures and offering their favorite bowls as menu items, Ru said the hope is to encourage people to come up with their own. His dream collaborator? Stevie Nicks.

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This year, Sweetgreen teamed up with pastry chef Malcolm Livingston II as the company’s first chef in residence to create one of its first dessert products, a “healthier version of the Rice Krispie Treat.” In addition to partnering with fellow millennial brand Great Jones for the rollout of the dessert, according to Ru, Sweetgreen has also partnered with brands like Brightland olive oil on custom products.

“I think brands have to find the balance of making sure that the collaborations feel connected to the core of their business and they don’t over-collaborate,” Ru said, adding that his team looks for new collaborations according to its 5x-a-year menu changes that “may be a little bit more unexpected” and “create conversation around the brand.”

What’s next

As of now, Sweetgreen does not work with any advertising agencies—but that doesn’t mean it’s not open to it in the future, Ru said. For now, he said, most work is handled by an internal team of 30 people.

“It’s a little bit of art and science,” he said. “We have creatives, but we also have a lot of people who are thinking about how we actually take those campaigns and drive traffic as well.”

When thinking about new products, Ru said restaurant employees are also an important part of the conversation. “The No. 1 thing that we hear from our teams in our restaurants is that they want more cool merch,” he said.

Looking ahead to the next year, Ru said he’s thinking about products that employees and customers will want to wear, whether that’s hoodies or something more out of the box. “We always joke that we should do branded toothpicks at Sweetgreen just because everybody gets salad stuck in their teeth,” he said.

Another thing customers should keep an eye out for next year? A new loyalty program. Ru said it will likely be tiered and consist of some of the features tested this year with the subscription-based Sweetpass. He said it will also likely include challenges in hope of driving frequency and customer loyalty.

“It [will be] one of our biggest moments next year and something that our customers definitely are going to be excited about,” he said.

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