New Dunkin’ owner Inspire Brands is not only one of the largest restaurant companies in the world, it also wants to be a leader in the collection, analysis and use of data. To that end, Inspire’s CEO Paul Brown recently created a new corporate position. Navin Sharma, a senior executive with Inspire since 2018, is now the Chief Commercial Services Officer. His job, according to Brown is to “drive competitive advantage and long-term growth for all our brands.”

The restaurant industry is in the midst of a digital revolution. A 2020 study by the Michigan State University Eli Broad College of Business, highlighted how restaurants have been able to home in on their customers like never before, thanks to a greater assortment of digital tools – like ordering kiosks and mobile apps that collect customer information and preferences. “Through qualitative analytics, restaurants can create datasets of customer purchasing profiles,” the study reported.

In a recent feature article about how drive-thrus are getting “smarter,” Restaurant Business Magazine noted, “Burger King is one chain leaning heavily into AI (artificial intelligence). Its team of five in-house data scientists worked with tech giant Intel to develop a drive-thru recommendation algorithm that uses variables such as weather, time of day and the first thing a customer orders to generate targeted suggestions.”

As a standalone brand, Dunkin’ built a powerful digital infrastructure that collects millions of data points. Sharma called the DD Perks program a “truly best-in-class loyalty platform that equips the brand with valuable data on who Dunkin’s guests are, what they like, and how they want to engage with the brand.” That information, he said, “is key to effectively deploying 1-to-1 marketing and personalized offers to drive transactions.”

In his new role, Sharma, who grew up in South Carolina, has the opportunity to greatly influence how restaurants – and chains – compete for customer loyalty in an industry that is fundamentally changing the way customers interact with the brands they know—and love.

“By leveraging data and digital technology, we are able to connect with the guest at any point in the customer journey, simplify the order and purchase experience, and streamline our operations – all while capturing key data points,” Sharma said in response to written questions from Independent Joe. “Guests expect brands to understand their preferences, and we see this as a valuable opportunity to drive guest frequency and loyalty.”

Technology continues to improve not only the way companies can collect data, but also how that data is analyzed and used to make major decisions. According to a recent blog from Ryan Andrews, director of marketing for Eat App, a restaurant guest management platform, “Truly competitive restaurants are utilizing analytics solutions for a variety [of] cases, including: customer profiling, operations improvement, table turnover optimization, sales forecasting and lifetime value and repeat customer trends.”

For QSR franchisees, data is also an important factor in determining how an item gets priced. “If you’re actually measuring how consumers are responding to different price changes, you can glean a lot of useful insights,” Mike Lukianoff, Chief Analytics Officer at Personica, said in a 2017 interview with the digital business publication Smartbrief. “Pricing is one of the quickest ways for data to pay off, because if you get pricing wrong you can really be punished by consumers, but if you get it right it can be a revenue growth strategy.”

Sharma said Inspire will be collecting and analyzing data across multiple verticals to position its brands at the “forefront of innovation in the restaurant space.” As an example, he said, “Our Insights & Analytics team is focused on providing actionable insights that lead to data-driven recommendations on how to drive business growth and profitability.” Inspire is building an integrated data & analytics platform – the first of its kind in the restaurant industry, which Sharma said will use “real-time internal data bolstered by third-party data to feed predictive, self-learning algorithms with continuous testing and improvement. We’ve designed these tools to not only be scalable across the portfolio, but to be strengthened by each new brand that joins the Inspire family.”

Sharma was educated at Duke University, where he studied electrical and biomedical engineering. He also received an MBA in Marketing at Duke. After college he worked for the prestigious Boston Consulting Group with a practice focused on retail, consumer packaged goods, technology, and manufacturing. He honed his analytic skills while serving as Senior Vice President of Insights, Analytics, and Digital for Arby’s.

Prior to founding Inspire, Paul Brown was President of Brands and Commercial Services at Hilton Worldwide and witnessed firsthand how technology disrupted the hospitality industry. Sharma said that experience helped guide Inspire’s drive to go all-in on big data.

“Similar to major hotel companies, Inspire’s commercial engine and digital platforms are designed to enable our brands to better serve guests and increase loyalty while creating operational efficiencies. By making deep investments in these areas, Inspire is positioning our brands at the forefront of innovation in the restaurant space,” he said.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Dunkin’ was already using digital tools like the DD Perks loyalty program and the On-The-Go mobile app to collect customer data. As the brand comes out of a prolonged period of disruption, during which digital adoption has grown, Sharma knows there will be plenty of new data to analyze.

“COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated the adoption and innovation of digital technology, for brands and guests alike. Guests are interacting with us differently than they did even a year ago. The way we engage our guests, serve them in our restaurants, and understand their preferences has fundamentally changed as well,” he told us.

With its seven brands, serving millions of guests, Inspire will be collecting billions of data points. How those are analyzed and utilized could make the difference between good same store sales growth and great growth. What remains to be seen is what kind of impact Inspire’s push will have on Dunkin’ operators, who are already accustomed to having brand decisions guided by big data.