Brand Strategy

A conversation with the CMO of Shake Shack

“If there’s a really fun activation where culture is happening, we want to be in the middle of that,” Jay Livingston told us.
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Jay Livingston

· 5 min read

Before there were burgers in Jay Livingston’s life, there were bankers and boxes.

Prior to his job as CMO of Shake Shack, Livingston began his career at Bank of America, where he worked in marketing for more than 20 years. When he was searching for his next role, Livingston told us he was looking for three things: a “consumer-facing brand that makes a physical product that brings people joy.” That led him to become the CMO of Bark, which oversees BarkBox, where he remained for almost two years before joining Shake Shack.

Now, with nearly five years under his belt at the fast-casual chain, Livingston said he’s proud of the work he and his team have done to build out the brand’s social presence, PR strategy, and in-house design. Under his leadership, the brand has also developed its digital strategy, expanded in-app delivery, and collaborated with brands like Studs and Hot Ones.

Livingston told us he’s looking to tell Shake Shack’s story “bigger and more broadly” outside New York City, where the restaurant chain originated, through more brand partnerships and mass media, including the brand’s first-ever TV spot, which began airing last year.

“We’re starting to get the financial means to do really interesting things,” he said. “That’s the most fun stage of growth.”

Shaking it up

While at Bank of America, Livingston “started doing a lot of angel investing” and exploring companies in “full growth mode,” he said, which led him to Bark and then Shake Shack. While seemingly dissimilar from the outside, Livingston said that nearly every scenario he’s faced at both companies is something he previously encountered in banking.

There are some exceptions. “I made a joke with [Shake Shack founder and chair] Danny Meyer when I interviewed for this job, and I said, ‘Listen, nothing will be as intense as the financial crisis at Bank of America,’” he said. “Then later, when Covid hit, about three months into Covid, I sent him a text and said, ‘You know what? I might have been wrong. This might be even crazier than the financial crisis, in some ways.’”

Still, Livingston said that he felt prepared for high-pressure situations. Before Covid, Shake Shake’s business was primarily brick-and-mortar, with only about 15% of its operations digital; that shot up to 85% three weeks after the pandemic began, he said. Even as people started returning to restaurants, the shift to digital laid the foundation for initiatives still running today, like in-app delivery.

At Bark, where he worked from 2017 to 2019, Livingtston said he was given a $70 million budget for performance marketing—something he said he had “not had a lot of exposure to” at the time. Getting up-to-speed on performance marketing came in handy at Shake Shack, where he built out the company’s performance marketing strategy, which includes paid social, SEO, and offer management, like the company’s recent chicken-sandwich giveaway.

Through meeting other CMOs and working with other brands, Livingston has also crafted a regional and national brand marketing strategy that’s included collabs with the Trolls Band Together movie, Studs jewelry, Hot Ones, and Game of Thrones—the latter of which Livingston called one of the brand’s most successful to date.

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“We’ve done a lot of great programs and collabs that are not necessarily super expensive,” he said, pointing to this summer’s campaign to find a “chief avocado officer” as one example.

With each collab and marketing campaign, Shake Shack tries to “really be in the fabric of the conversation” and create “fun brand moments” to find new audiences, gain impressions on social, and generate sales and media buzz, he said.

Think globally, act locally

Livingston said his time working for a bank with thousands of branches showed him the ins and outs of retailing, which helped him prepare to work for a brand like Shake Shack, which has 500 locations and counting. But his goal is to change people’s perception of what a chain is.

“We want to be an asset to our neighborhood,” he said. “When somebody says, ‘My Shake Shack,’ like, if you were to say, ‘That’s my Shake Shack in Dumbo,’ versus, ‘There is a Shake Shack there,’ that’s when we know that we’ve got you, that it feels local to you.”

The overarching story that Livingston wants to tell in the brand’s marketing is that Shake Shack uses premium ingredients and is committed to creating what he calls an “uplifting experience.” That’s why you’ll see the brand at music festivals like Lollapalooza, catering weddings, or donating proceeds to causes like local animal shelters.

“If there’s a really fun activation where culture is happening, we want to be in the middle of that,” Livingston said.

As part of his role, Livingston oversees the brand’s menu innovation and supply-chain management, which involves weekly tastings. Having a hand in new products and their messaging allows Livingston to think through the story he wants to tell from concept to execution.

“We did Korean-style fried chicken where we got our kimchi from a really cool family in Portland,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things I think that having the marketing mind as part of the culinary development process really helps with.”

One challenge is that it can be difficult to convey what sets the brand apart from other burger and sandwich chains given that, at the end of the day, many people don’t want to think about what happens to a chicken before it becomes a Chicken Shack.

“It’s an amazing process to be a part of, that we’re able to support sustainable farming, but it’s hard to show that as a marketer,” he said, pointing to Chipotle’s 2011 animated short film as an exception to the rule. “We’re always thinking about, ‘How do we convey that same message?’”

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