February 17, 2015
Case Study

Brand Affinity: Mellow Mushroom builds engagement via original content, e-club program

SUMMARY: Balancing promotional content with brand affinity content is a challenge — how can you meet your business strategy with promotional emails but not overwhelm subscribers? How can you create an experience that is unique to your brand and builds awareness and loyalty with customers?

Learn how national restaurant collection Mellow Mushroom goes the extra mile with email marketing, serving up artistic and customer-centric messaging and content for subscribers to devour as well as infusing promotional emails without tipping the balance.
by Erin Hogg, Reporter

Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers isn’t your normal pizza restaurant chain.

"We specialize in restaurant collection. We don't like to be thought of as a chain because every Mellow Mushroom is unique," Steven Sams, Digital Content Manager, Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers, said.

Founded in 1974 in Atlanta, Ga., Mellow Mushroom has been serving up fresh, stone-baked pizzas to order with an eclectic, art-filled and family-friendly environment. Each location is locally owned and operated and has a unique feel in terms of décor and ambiance.

Local designers and artists give each Mellow Mushroom a personal touch, and the main theme is positive pop culture references from the 1960s through 90s, according to Dusty Griffin, Senior Graphic Designer, Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers.

"What we try and do from headquarters here is we are pushing the brand and really working a lot with brand affinity. We want to keep the core guests that have grown to love our quirky nature," Sams explained. "They expect us to do weird things, strange things and unique things. We get a lot of leverage in our department to be able to be really adventurous in what we present."


In developing content for brand awareness and affinity, the team at Mellow Mushroom also has to balance that content with promotional content from the brand's partners.

"My team and the people in our department look at how we can present this in a unique way that really retains our core while attracting new guests as well," Sams said.

Diving deeper into that challenge, a bigger question arose: How much promotional content is too much, and how can the original brand affinity content still engage Mellow Mushroom's loyal fan base?

According to Sams, his team keeps a promotional calendar with up to 10 national promotions each year. These could be related to a new product coming into the restaurants, like a new beer from a partner, or highlighting a limited-time special menu.

These promotional sends come with stricter creative guidelines for the team to adhere to, such as messaging and approval processes from a vendor.


In balancing promotional and non-promotional content, Sams and Griffin have taken initiative to develop very unique messaging to ensure that Mellow Mushroom customers, particularly those signed up for the Mellow Mushroom e-club, are staying engaged.

"On the other side, we've got this latitude to create a lot of zany art and other types of interactive or engaging digital material and printed material that does not have to be tied into something that has more specific rules or constraints. That is where Dusty and I, and other people on my team and in my department, start to get really creative and have a fun time," Sams explained.

In designing a balance of half promotional, half brand affinity, Sams and the team have found that guests do not get tired of either messaging.

"We are really big believers in original content. We really try to make everything really deep and content rich. It's one of our core philosophies," Griffin said.

Step #1. Develop brand affinity content for loyalty program

Mellow Mushroom operates a loyalty e-club program in which subscribers then receive email marketing messaging from the brand.

As Sams explained, users who sign up receive special offers through a welcome email, a birthday email, a family birthday email and a customer anniversary offer.

These messages are the only ones in which a user will receive some form of discount, whether it be a free appetizer (munchies, as the brand calls them) or a certain dollar amount off a bill.

"That means the rest of the content that we send out, which is between three to five messages a month, in some way that engages the guests so that they don't unsubscribe, and they interact with us," Sams said.

The Stone Baked Times

To keep subscribers engaged sans promotional offers, the team created The Stone Baked Times, which is sent out every two months.

For each send, the team creates an homage to various art and pop culture genres to help their sends stand out in customer's inbox.

"Our guests can actually appreciate the hard work that we've put into the art and the copy that goes into the email. They'll get an email that is unlike any others that they receive from other restaurants," Sams said.

For Volume 1 Number 2, the team took inspiration from classic comic book covers and created a design around that focus. The send included links for short snippets of news at Mellow Mushroom.

View the Creative Sample

Click here to see the full version of this creative sample

"We're not stuck or pinned to any particular art history period. What is great [is] that I have designers here, like Dusty [Griffin], that know art history and can jump on any crazy idea that I have because I know art history as well," Sams said.

As Sams explained, Mellow Mushroom fans appreciate the work put into the content they receive, rather than just receiving promotional content.

"It is not just 'eat this piece of pizza, buy this piece of pizza' all the time. Although they love seeing pizza, don't get me wrong, but we give them much more than that," he explained.

"Tell Us More" email

Two months after joining the Mellow Mushroom e-club, subscribers receive an email with a collection of cartoon characters related to the brand. This send is to entice subscribers to fill out their online profile so Mellow Mushroom can know more about them.

View the Creative Sample

Click here to see the full version of this creative sample

The team created 12 characters, including the Harshinator ("He harshens your mellow"), Dude Shroomington, Cappy the Elf, Hummus the Dragon and more.

Once a subscriber clicks through, they'll answer questions on topics such as their dietary preferences (such as vegan or vegetarian), allergies and lifestyle questions. For instance, the questions center on if they're health and fitness focused, if they have children or would if they like to hear more about the craft beer selections.

Even with no incentive, Sams and the team have seen about a 40% participation rate.

"They know that it will help us provide more relevant information for them and not fill their inbox with junk, and they really like the brand. It lets them feel like they're being involved and engaging with us," Sams explained.

Step #2. Set up triggered content sends

After a subscriber fills out more information about themselves, that will trigger segmented content based on their interests. These are all affinity-based messages that utilize the range of original Mellow Mushroom characters and the genres of pop culture and art.

One example is if a subscriber indicates they have a wheat allergy, they will receive a send related to gluten-free options at Mellow Mushroom — a downloadable socialist-era style poster.

View the Creative Sample

Click here to see the full version of this creative sample

"We hearken into all of these periods of art history and kind of hope to create a deep artistic connection with our guests," Sams said.

Other examples include if a subscriber indicates they have children, they will start receiving Mellow for Kids content.

If a customer tells Mellow Mushroom they are vegan, that prompts content that will show the subscriber the vegan options available at restaurants.

Subscribers who indicate they'd like to receive "cool stuff" from Mellow Mushroom receive exclusive content, such as Shroomtopia, Mellow Mushroom's very own comic book series.

Step #3. Promote club sign up

To entice Mellow Mushroom lovers to sign up for the e-club, Sams explained they promote it everywhere they can.

On the website, there is a banner and link on the homepage of the site to join the e-club. In the brick-and-mortar locations, the e-club is promoted right in the menu under the appetizers (munchies) section.

In a free calendar given to Mellow Mushroom guests, the e-club is also promoted. Sign up is also encouraged in Mellow Mushroom's lifestyle magazine, Mellow Life, available at restaurant locations.

Mellow Mushroom's Facebook audience can also sign up right on the Mellow Mushroom HQ Facebook page.

The team implemented a Mellow KarMMa mobile loyalty app, where users are prompted to sign up for the e-club upon joining the program.

When a customer participates in a promotional contest, there is also a prompt to join the e-club.

Of course, Mellow Mushroom also has paper slips at the restaurant locations in which a pizza fan can join the club.

Step #4. Tie content into blog and social

For the 2015 Mellow Mushroom calendar, the theme was: "A Scandal in Shroomville — The Case of the Emerald Mushroom."

The team included a crime mystery series in which the 12 Mellow Mushroom characters were suspects in a burglarized valuable mushroom.

View the Creative Sample

Click here to see the full version of this creative sample

Each month, the community could vote via Facebook who they thought the criminal was, and the team set up a dedicated blog to keep track of the cases progress.

Those who participate are also put into a drawing for various prizes.

Mellow Mushroom leverages social media to connect with fans. On Facebook, the characters are brought in as well as information on new locations and updates to menus.

View the Creative Sample

Click here to see the full version of this creative sample

On Twitter, the brand retweets all things Mellow-related from fans and local restaurants. Pinterest is also used to host everything from shots of Mellow Mushroom locations, art, a board called "What makes us laugh," pizza paraphernalia and much more.

While not all the content directly relates to pizza, it shares the same attitude as the brand, and the team posts content their fans would be interested in.

Step #5. Analyze results from email campaigns

The marketing department at Mellow Mushroom consists of 12 people, and Sams runs biweekly editorial meetings where the teams come together. This includes the promotion team, the designers, the e-club team and local field marketing managers.

"We come together and we look at the calendar, and we discuss the messaging and the interesting creative projects that we are doing and how we can get the message into the creative stuff and how we can get the creative stuff into the messages," Sams said.

Sams takes all of the results from the email marketing program and analyzes three main KPIs: open, clickthrough and unsubscribe.

Open rate helps Sams figure out what subject lines are performing the best, and clickthrough rate tells the team if they provided something engaging enough that the subscribers clicked through.

"We always have something to click through to. It's a rule because we do want to look at that and see if they engaged or not," Sams explained.

Unsubscribe rate is key for Sams to find out if they are sending too many emails or if their sends are not relevant to subscribers.

If an email receives a low open rate compared to the brand's average, Sams looks at the message and sees if the subject line could have been clearer or more engaging. A/B testing is performed with subject lines, testing elements like special characters in a subject line, to see if that engaged subscribers more.

"We watch those three numbers, and they all perform well every time. It's just a matter of which ones don't do as great as some of them. Rarely, I want to say never, have we gotten one that just had disappointing numbers that were below average," Sams added.


Since launching the e-club just over two years ago, Mellow Mushroom has seen that list grow to more than 270,000 guests.

"Don't be boring. Be funny if you can be. Enrich their lives in some way. Give them a nice piece of art that they can look at and enjoy for art's sake. Something that is aesthetically going to enrich them for the day. Segment like crazy," Sams said.

According to Sams, average open rates are in the 30% to 40% range, with clickthrough averages at up to 9%. In addition, unsubscribe rates are low, only up to .4% for an email.

The average open rate for The Stone Baked Times series is 31.11%.

For the "Tell Us More" send that subscribers receive two months after sign up, it holds a 49.9% open rate with a 22.2% CTR.

In announcing a vegan menu, that email netted a 45.5% open rate with 32.2% CTR.

The first Shroomtopia comic book send secured a 48.1% open rate with 20.9% CTR.

"We don't like to spell everything out for our customers. We like to have a little bit of mystery. We write our back stories a little bit further than we probably have to and stuff like that, just so that the people that want to get more into us can. There is always something else to find. I think that is part of our whole philosophy of our content richness," Sams said.

In 2015, the team plans to continue growing the mobile loyalty app, Mellow KarMMa, and add more games and rewards for Mellow fans.

Creative Samples

  1. Stone Baked Times collage

  2. Comic book example

  3. "Tell Us More" email

  4. Gluten-free poster

  5. Vegan email

  6. Shroomtopia comic book

  7. Calendar contest

  8. Facebook posts

  9. Pinterest boards


Mellow Mushroom

Related Resources

Red Bull Media House’s Advice for Successful Content Marketing

Infographic: Customer experience in the digital age

Email Segmentation: Finish Line's automation initiative lifts email revenue 50%

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