Olive Garden test drives social media

Marilyn    February 8, 2015

Organization Name:  Olive Garden


Industry:  Hospitality/Food

Name of Contact if Available:  N/A

Company Overview:

The Olive Garden has more than 800 restaurants, 96,000 employees, and approximately $3.6 billion in annual sales. It is a division of Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns and operates more than 2,100 restaurants. Headquartered in Orlando, Florida, Darden employs more than 200,000 people across its restaurant brands, which includes Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, The Capital Grille, Eddie V’s and Yard House.

Web References: 





Description of how social media is used for business performance:

With hospitality and customer service at the heart of Olive Garden operations, and a focus on “push” marketing handled by an external agency, it wasn’t long before Olive Garden realized it wasn’t part of the online conversation its customers (guests) shared about their experiences – both positive and negative – with the restaurant chain.

Enter Justin Sikora, director of public relations and social media for Darden Restaurants, who recognized the company needed to look at different ways of talking to and responding to customers, so he developed a six-month pilot project to move the company from an inability to respond to social media, to one that recognized the importance of engaging its customers through a variety of platforms.

His approach involved five steps:

1.  Shifted Ownership:  Social media moved from being part of marketing to a PR function.  This enabled a shift from “push” promotions to actual conversations about a wide range of subjects.

2.  On-site managers:  Instead of using outsourced promotions experts who relied on briefs from marketing, community managers were hired and brought on site to build relationships across the organization, which included working in the test kitchens.

3.  Connection to Guest Relations:  The Guest Relations Department typically used phone, email, regular mail, and fax to respond to customer comments.  The pilot project put Guest Relations at the centre of everything it did and ensured their voice was a part of the solution.

4.  Physicality:  It was important for the pilot project to be noticed within the organization in order for it to get traction and its importance understood.  Sikora deliberately located the team away from marketing and near the finance department and president’s office, knowing that involvement, interest and advocacy would grow organically.

5.  Adjusted the focus:  Adopting a mentality that put listening and talking first, Sikora refined the approach to paid media, established the ability to respond 24-7, and evolved the content based on the strategic pillars of the organization.


Over the course of the six-month pilot, several things happened:

  • guest recovery improved
  • HR department was able to get feedback to restaurants and incorporated a new form of training for employees – “post-worthy” behaviour
  • the restaurant became a part of important conversations about issues such as gluten-free products; breast-feeding in restaurants; wages; food preparation
  • website bloggers became advocates
  • the organization used the online dialogue as a source to surprise and delight its guests – i.e. if a guest posted they were going to Olive Garden for a birthday, they would be surprised with a free appetizer on site


  • social media was successfully integrated into operations with a focus on how to benefit guests and their experience

Lessons for others:

Integrating social media as part of a customer relations strategy involves not only an understanding of the various platforms available, it also means knowing how to integrate it into company-wide operations.

Final word:


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Submitted by:  Marilyn Hood

To contact the author of this entry, please email at:  mhood2323@gmail.com

If you have any concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site, please send your concerns to Peter Carr, Programme Director, Social Media for Business Performance.