El Pollo Loco began as a small restaurant chain in the 1970s, first in Mexico and later in Southern California, before expanding to multiple states across the western US.
The chicken chain’s media strategy started off old school – mainly TV, radio and out-of-home signage – and it didn’t start to invest heavily in digital channels until 2019, said CMO Andy Rebhun.
Although El Pollo Loco still spends on linear TV, half of its ad dollars go to digital, primarily connected TV and social video. TikTok alone makes up between 12% and 15% of its digital media spending.
In June, the brand just launched its first-ever TikTok-only campaign, “Abuela Approved,” starring a sassy, real-talking grandma.
“We’ve had to modernize our approach to brand storytelling and the way we’re buying our media,” Rebhun said. “[That means] a heavy lean into digital, social media channels and programmatic advertising.”
El Pollo Loco now transacts 20% of its digital media buys programmatically, despite still focusing primarily on upper-funnel brand awareness.
Although TikTok isn’t El Pollo Loco’s only social partner – it also advertises on YouTube and Snapchat – TikTok has become its largest since 2020, when the brand first started experimenting with the platform.
“TikTok continues to be the fastest-growing channel and platform,” Rebhun said, adding that El Pollo Loco is also attracted to the active influencer community and authenticity it can tap into on TikTok.
But TikTok stands out from other social media platforms for another reason, which is that it doesn’t consider itself to be one. People use TikTok for video consumption and entertainment more than they use it to connect with friends.
“Right now, [our] strategy is really all about building brand awareness and getting more engagement and followers on TikTok,” Rebhun said. “If we see success with [the ‘Abuela Approved’ campaign], it’ll probably open [up] more opportunity to double down on an episodic video content strategy.”
The “Abuela Approved” campaign, which started running on TikTok at the end of June, features the brand’s grandmother spokesperson – now known as the “Head Abuela in Charge” – who comedically disapproves of other products, plugging an El Pollo Loco menu item.
The “Abuela Approved” hashtag alone has six billion views and counting on the platform. This level of engagement is in line with the high levels of brand lift El Pollo Loco has seen on TikTok over the past two years. What’s different is this is the first campaign that’s exclusive to the channel.
“And it’s trending in the right direction – we’ve definitely seen growth in our overall follower base on TikTok,” said Rebhun, who noted the campaign is part of a larger effort to build a consistent approach to video-based storytelling that appeals to a younger audience.
Several of the videos in the Abuela campaign have already garnered between 300,000 and one million views.
Only getting younger
El Pollo Loco has always focused on targeting multigenerational family audiences, but its TikTok strategy helps the brand build a closer relationship with younger audiences, which is important, as young, bilingual Hispanic populations in the US continue to grow.
“Traditionally, we were advertising family meals on TV,” Rebhun said. “This [campaign] brings in a little bit more of a comedic, fun way of advertising family connections.”
Plus, it’s a way to get younger audiences more engaged.
TikTok is one way to help make “chicken-on-the-bone cool again,” he added.
And “we’re also making sure [audiences] are aware we have other great products, especially younger audiences who enjoy things like the flexibility of meal prepping,” he said.
Across the nation
Currently, El Pollo Loco restaurants are almost exclusively located on the West Coast – 80% of stores are in California alone.
But as the company grows its brand awareness, more physical locations across the US will follow, and El Pollo Loco will need to spend on channels that have national scale.
“We’re opening up our first location in Denver in two or three months,” Rebhun said. “As we expand into other [states], our messaging is still going to stay very consistent around quality food and brand awareness.”
But as much as TikTok can work for upper-funnel brand building, it hasn’t necessarily dethroned linear when it comes to building regional brand awareness within new DMAs.
“[Our] local marketing dollars start digital,” Rebhun said. “But opening more restaurants in [US] territory opens up the coffers to bringing mass brand awareness to new DMAs through TV.”