When the opportunity to join Regal Entertainment as CMO presented itself in 2012, Ken Thewes—a self-proclaimed “fan boy and movie lover”—accepted the job faster than Star Wars' Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run.
During the past two decades, Thewes had been cutting his marketing teeth in consumer packaged goods, casual dining restaurants, and retail companies, working at Procter & Gamble, Darden and Brinker International restaurant groups, and Spartan Stores. The fact that he even made a career out of marketing was something of a surprise to those who knew him well: Thewes holds degrees in mathematics and electrical engineering and was known for his left-brain acumen more than his creativity.
However, once he discovered the balance of art and science that marketing requires, Thewes was hooked and became a leader in his field.
CMO.com recently caught up with the man in charge of marketing the world’s largest cinema circuit. Among the topics of discussion: reinvigorating the company’s loyalty program, mobile momentum, measuring marketing success beyond ticket sales, and brand differentiation.
CMO.com: Looking at your early background, it doesn’t appear as if this was your career path of choice. Where did your interest in marketing come from?
Thewes: I grew up in a blue-collar family and didn’t know what marketing was. I had a strong math background, had an engineering degree, and was in the Air Force, but I knew it wasn’t right for me. I began working with a headhunter and basically was steered toward sales and marketing. Procter & Gamble was recruiting at the time for brand management, and I was hired. It was a great move.
CMO.com: What led you to Regal Entertainment? What was it about the company that you wanted to be a part of?
Thewes: It all starts with a passion for the business. Although I have worked for a few different brands, there are certain companies I wouldn’t work with if they sold a product I didn’t believe in. I was excited about this opportunity at Regal. I am a movie fan at heart and have been going to the movies all my life. It was a dream job on paper, and having been here almost two years, I can tell you I love every moment of it.
CMO.com: You’ll be approaching your two-year anniversary with Regal this June. Take me through those first days and some of your initial goals upon getting the position.
Thewes: For me, I had to learn and get up to speed quickly on the industry. I wanted to make sure I understood the nuances of this exhibitor business and Hollywood quickly. I wanted to assess my team and set them up for success. I had a sense coming in that while Regal is very data-driven, they weren’t holding marketing to that standard, and I wanted our group to be more data driven.
In terms of being data-driven, the way we look at [marketing] today compared to two years ago is dramatically different. We’re not just a staffing function to assist others. We’re bringing in new ideas and holding ourselves accountable to make sure we are getting a return on investment, and partnering with a lot of functions at Regal to make sure we are driving our market share in the business.
CMO.com: One of your biggest successes so far has been with the Regal Crown Club, which has increased the loyalty program leaps and bounds. How vital was that to the job at hand?
Thewes: The key thing that came out of my interviews was that they were looking for someone to take control and leverage their loyalty program—the Regal Crown Club—which was, and is, a big entity, but they weren’t doing a whole lot to leverage that. We’re making progress, but there’s still a long way to go there.
We knew we needed to enhance the Regal Crown Club. We did research to understand some key opportunities, and a couple of things came out of it. We were making it hard for the customer to sign up. They could sign up at the theater level, but it required our operators to fill out a form, and, at the end of the day, operators had too many other things on their plate. We simplified the process. You can walk up, get your card, and get instructions on how to activate it. We’ve grown over 40 percent in the past year.
We also weren’t doing anything with the data, and that’s where the power is. We need technology to enable a lot of what we want to do, and we have definitely started more targeted marketing, measuring our efforts to see if we are really driving incremental visits and capitalizing on that. We now have a deeper focus on the data, so we can see what works and what doesn’t.
CMO.com: Regal’s “Go Big or Go Home” campaign, which encourages people to view movies on the “big screen”—has had industry insiders buzzing. Talk a little about its success and the role you played.
Thewes: For “Go Big or Go Home,” I have to give credit to my predecessor and team. That was developed as I was coming on board. In our industry, we have a pretty good collective—The National Association of Theater Owners—and they were looking to try and assess an industry campaign to help owners. Without waiting for that, we looked ourselves and identified an obvious reason for going to the movies, which is that the experience starts with the size of the screen. Since we launched it, we have really customized it and made it more ownable to Regal by working with studios to showcase their individual movies, and that has been a lot of fun. We’ve kept it fresh and interesting. We’ve worked with four to five different studios on pictures and had great success with them integrating their own kind of trailer into our “Go Big or Go Home” campaign.
CMO.com: The investment of online ticket companies in mobile apps, mobile-enhanced sites, and mobile-specific deals seems to be a big thing right now. What are your thoughts on this, and how does it change the way Regal does business?
Thewes: I don’t think we’re in a zero-sum game here. I think the more people and the more organizations that can make tickets accessible to consumers will absolutely help grow our industry. We’ve got great partners in that space. You can buy tickets to Regal on Fandango, for example. I think it’s a good thing, and they keep the competition high, so when we see someone doing something that’s an enhancement or better than we are doing it, we take notice and try to improve on it as well.
CMO.com: How important is social buzz to the success of the company? Can you give me an example of a marketing message that was successful because of it either going viral or at least steered customers to your brand?
Thewes: We had a lot of little things that have worked. The biggest one I can speak to is we partnered with Universal on Les Miserables. We worked with them to get custom content. It was kind of a behind-the-scenes making of the movie. Hugh Jackman did the intro and did a shoutout to the Regal brand and our customers, and we exposed our consumers to what the movie was all about.
The way they shot it was unique, and we built both an in-theater and exclusive online platform. In the first three-day weekend, we had a million views, by far the biggest thing we’ve ever done. In theaters, we showed it to every one of our customers over a period of weeks. The results came in, and the movie’s opening helped us achieve a record market share on that movie. We since surpassed with some others, but the combination of creating digital buzz, creating buzz inside the theater, and driving incredible awareness of the movie saw our customers come back in greater degrees than we’d ever done for any other movie. That has been our biggest success.
CMO.com: In the movie industry, results can be measured in ticket sales, but those aren’t the only metrics you need to look at to stay ahead. How do you measure what’s working on the marketing and social media levels?
Thewes: I think a lot about metrics, and I have a math background, so it comes naturally to me. That was more of a learning curve for some on my team. We start with our box office sales, concession sales, and our market share. Those are the key metrics. Not everything we do can be measured by impact, but everything we do has some metric attached to it.
We did a campaign on Vine and created a mini-series, “Date Night Fails.” We enlisted some Vine celebrities and created some YouTube spots, and we got a lot of traction on that. I don’t know if we can say, “By doing this, it translated to a certain amount of ticket sales,” but we definitely saw a spike in traffic both on our Web site and our social channels. From that perspective, it exceeded our expectations. Whenever we can, we try to tie it back to box-office and market share, and where we can’t, we definitely have specific metrics on how we expect it to perform.
CMO.com: How important has mobile been to your marketing efforts?
Thewes: Over the past year, we have seen our mobile traffic and mobile sales grow tremendously to overtake the rest of digital, so our primary sales are coming from mobile and primary views on our site. We have an app and a mobile site, and those are really the two forces communicating our brand and our message. Ticket sales on mobile have grown more than 200 percent this past year, so it’s really escalating. Our mobile redemptions, as we try to incent our consumers, are up over 90 percent.
CMO.com: How do you use your data collected from social media sites to help plan a strategy?
Thewes: I’d say we primarily use it right now to optimize the messaging and our tactics. Sites like Facebook are phenomenal and easy to get an understanding of what interests our consumers. The topics and ways we communicate have shifted. We definitely identify the opportunities to bring our Crown Club data in with our social activity, and really customize and enhance the way we are talking to our customers and even reward them for talking with us in a variety of ways—not just at the theater when they buy tickets, but on social sites as they watch movies and share our content.
CMO.com: How do you differentiate the Regal brand from others in the industry?
Thewes: It’s something I refer to as action and innovation. We are in a really fast-paced industry, not unlike retail where I came from. Every week we’ve got another one to two, sometimes four, new initiatives, which are the new movies opening up. There is definitely an opportunity for us to not only do more, but be innovative in how we do those things. A lot of the studios have an idea of what they want to do, and we immediately started saying yes more frequently than we had before. We wanted to work with the studios, but started to look at ways we could be unique at Regal and stand apart from our competitors.
CMO.com: Describe the relationship you have with your CEO, Amy Miles. What are her expectations of you and your team, and how are those expectations measured?
Thewes: I report to Greg Dunn, president and COO, and I would say they are both very accessible. ...Amy is great. She’ll tell you where she stands, won’t beat around the bush, and gives a long leash to me to do what I feel is right in marketing. She will challenge me, hold me accountable for results, and trust me on how to get those results. The culture here is phenomenal. We are in a fun industry, and I think people recognize that.
Technology is also a huge enabler. I have to mention my relationship with Dave Doyle, our CIO. Early on, he was the first person to reach out to me, and I’m really glad he did. Almost anything I want to do, I need his help to enable in technology. We all work very closely to know what everyone is doing and partner together.
CMO.com: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about your position?
Thewes: That it’s all fun and no hard work. From my perspective, it is all fun, and I love what I do, but there are details of marketing even folks in other industries don’t understand. You can’t just open up the door and expect enough people to come see a movie. We need to partner with studios to do what they think is right, but also in a way that builds our brand. We do have to go watch these movies and understand what works and what doesn’t–that’s the part I absolutely love.
CMO.com: OK, we have to ask. You call yourself a movie lover, so what are some of your favorite movies?
Thewes: I have a low bar for movies—I can watch just about anything. A lot of my favorite movies span the genres. I love the original “Matrix.” One of my favorites growing up was “Omega Man” with Charlton Heston. If it’s a good story, I love sitting there for two hours and getting lost in it.