John Gilbert

VP-marketing, Dunkin' Donuts

By Published on .

Big idea: A "spiked" co-marketing deal

How it came to him: A dinnertime flash of inspiration

How it's changing his business: Became a restaurant's longtime bestseller

Out to dinner with his family one night nearly a decade ago, John Gilbert, then head of marketing at T.G.I. Friday's, started wondering how the restaurant chain could improve the quality of its entrees while commanding higher prices for them. He had

good reason to wonder: The business was soft, and his idea pipeline was running decidedly dry. He'd heard about a chef who put whiskey in barbeque sauce, and while that intrigued him, he didn't think it was provocative enough to have a significant impact on the business. His thoughts then turned to Friday's relationship with Brown-Forman Corp., the maker of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. "Then it clicked for me: It could really work. If we branded it with Jack Daniel's, that would be sexy," he says. He was right: The Jack Daniel's Grill entree line is still among Friday's most successful. "There are some ideas I've had where I've gotten chills, literally," says Mr. Gilbert. "That was one of them."

In his current role as VP-marketing for Dunkin' Donuts, Mr. Gilbert brings to bear the same receptiveness to what the environment offers. "My creativity tends to come from identifying patterns in the marketplace and then seeing if there's a fit for the business," he says. When he arrived at Dunkin' Donuts two and a half years ago, energy drinks were taking over the beverage marketplace. Mr. Gilbert realized that Dunkin' Donuts was in the energy drink business, too. By promoting its new line of Turbo drinks-a shot of espresso added to coffee-as energy drinks, the company rode the Red Bull wave all the way to the bank.

Mr. Gilbert encourages his marketers not to seek complete mass appeal all the time. "More important is getting significant numbers of people who really care about a product to behave differently." Also crucial: realizing when you don't have a big idea, he says. "If it doesn't give you chills, you're better off trying to come up with something else."
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