95: Brandon Rhoten on the time and patience it takes to build a brand

Brandon Rhoten

This week in “Marketing Today,” Alan talks with Brandon Rhoten, outgoing CMO at Papa John’s. Prior to his stint there, he spent almost six years at Wendy’s, where he was VP for Marketing, heading up advertising, social media, and digital marketing.

During the course of his conversation with Alan, he talks about the importance of establishing a brand voice to connect with consumers. “It sounds cliché,” says Rhoten, “but you’ve got to establish that voice first. Because that’s really what builds everything.” And he goes on to add, “You have to build out tools, and rules, and measurements to understand how you really are reaching and influencing someone and their behavior. And that takes some time.”

In the end, though, for Rhoten, the success of a brand hinges on the work:

Highlights from this week’s “Marketing Today” podcast include:

  • Rhoten talks about his experience and background, and, most importantly, how he learned to tell a brand story. (1:34)
  • “We didn’t have a lucky moment, we were just ready for the moment.” — The story behind #NuggsForCarter. (5:28)
  • Differentiating yourself in a category not known for differentiation. (13:12)
  • Creating content worth consuming: “The future is moving to a place where the content has more inherent value.” (21:58)
  • Rhoten on managing the customer experience across multiple contact points. (26:53)
  • Advice for marketers seeking to be a change agent. (32:22)
  • Swinging for the fences: The first time Rhoten stood up for work he loved affected his career more than anything else. (34:07)
  • Rhoten on the future of marketing: “It’s less about who has the biggest bullhorn and it’s more about who has the best thing to say, who has the most interesting thing to say.” (40:13)
Read Full Transcript

- [Man] For all of us, it's about predicting where the consumer's going, and getting half of it right.

- [Woman] One of the things we want to do is create ads that don't suck.

- [Man] Embracing change creates great possibility.

- [Alan] I'm Alan Hart, and this is Marketing Today. Today on the show, I've got Brandon Rhoten, CMO of Papa John's. Brandon's been at Papa John's for about eight to nine months. Prior to that, he was VP In Charge of Advertising Media, Digital and Social Media at Wendy's. We talk a little bit about the most, I think it was the most retweeted campaign ever, hashtag ever for Nugs for Carter, where a guy was trying to get free nuggets for life. They went back and forth. The person that ended up, I guess Carter, ended up getting on Ellen, and it was a thing. So we talk a little bit about how that came about, what was the environment of the team, the capabilities that they had to be able to catch that opportunity, and actually make it, and maximize it to its fullest extent. We talk a lot about where he thinks marketing is going in terms of making marketing content, and content worth consuming, versus just advertising. We'll hit on customer experience, as well as a number of other topics, including the future of marketing. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Brandon. Brandon, welcome to the show.

- [Brandon] Thanks, I appreciate you having me.

- [Alan] Yeah, so we've got a lot to talk about. I thought one place we could start is your background, and where you started your career, and were there any pivotal twists, or turns, or mentors along the way.

- [Brandon] Sure, so I really got into marketing at an agency, a company called Gyro based in London with U.S. headquarters in Cincinnati. We spent a lot of time working with tech clients, and actually a lot of B2B work. There I learned that you could tell an interesting story about a brand, even if they were making ball bearings or machine tools, which really helped me understand how to tell a brand's story and build a personality for a brand. And that led me, eventually, to Wendy's. So I ran all advertising media, digital and social media for Wendy's for almost six years. I actually joined the brand when things were pretty rough. The split from Arby's occurred, and the brand was sort of in a rough spot where it hadn't been growing for awhile. And I sort of had free reign to build out a voice, to build out new advertising platforms, to transition into digital, and ultimately to build out the social, digital, and advertising voice for the brand for about the last six years. And that led me to Papa John's, just eight or nine months ago. So I'm relatively new in my new gig.

- [Alan] Alright, great. Let's talk a little bit about Wendy's. You brought it up. I know the organization, it sounded like, from a prior conversation we were having, the organization was really, when you came in, focused on digital, and kind of transforming, if you will, how they went to market a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about that evolution?

- [Brandon] Sure. So when I joined the brand, really it's experience had been growth comes from traditional media. Remember Dave Thomas was on television, literally more than any other founder in history, decades. And that really grew the brand in the 80s and the 90s. The first big moment that they learned marketing could work was "Where's the Beef." Even before that. So the brand was very comfortable with the idea of traditional marketing, and specifically television marketing, driving growth. And essentially what had happened over the couple years preceding me joining, actually about 10 years preceding me joining, is that growth slowed, and then it stopped. And as part of a new CEO coming in, and a bunch of new executives coming in, they wanted to actually build up a digital capability in the organization. So they found me, and asked me to come and do that for them. I was actually the first person in the building at Wendy's in 2011 with "Digital" in their title. I was a Digital Marketing Director with no staff, and no budget, and I essentially just fell into the organization, this idea that in 2011, when social networks had been established by then, and all of the work I'd done previously through the agency had shown, I'd proved that you can actually grow a brand through digital marketing. I had to make a case to the Board, to franchisees, to really, hundreds of thousands of employees that we could actually use digital marketing to grow the brand. So a lot of testing, a lot of research, a lot of discussions with the Board, and the executive team, and franchisees to show them that this is actually a way we can start differentiating as a brand. That led to a few wins in 2011, 2012, that essentially started to snowball. So once we sort of found our pace, figured out where the digital avenues for advertising that could actually grow the brand's perception, but actually grow business at the same time, they kept giving me stuff to do. So even though I was in charge of all digital assets, not just marketing, then and I was in charge of all media, and then I was in charge of all advertising, and all creative, and before long I was managing the entire, essentially, communications team for the brand. And really, by 2015, 2016, we had everything in place and were actually starting to make great progress, both from a business growth standpoint, but also really from a messaging standpoint. I was trying to pay attention to the brand, we were getting articles written about us a lot, that kind of jive.

- [Alan] Well one of the most recognizable efforts was the hashtag Nugs for Carter. Could you tell us a little bit about it for anybody that doesn't know that. They've been stuck under a rock this entire time. Tell us a little bit about it, and then I'd love to know the origin. And when did you guys get engaged on that effort?

- [Brandon] We had been building, for probably four years leading up to that moment, a totally differentiated social voice. Had a deep relationship with Twitter, and Facebook, and Stack, and all these social platforms. And I'd actually been noticed, probably 25, 30 times before, by publications, and others. Some good, some bad. I remember back in 2013, I think it was 2013, two big business publications wrote articles about how our social voice was ruining brands, and how dare brands try to talk like a person online. We weren't the only ones doing it, but we were one of the more conservative brands, I guess, or one of the more mainstream brands doing it. So we built this team out, an external team and an internal team. The external team was our agency, and internal team was for people we hired to be our social voice. And this team's job essentially was to express the true personality of the brand. So we'd done a lot of work leading up to this to define the voice of the brand. And essentially we were a challenger brand. You think about, "Where's the Beef?" That challenge kind of convention in your category. As the team was doing this, we had many moments that were very good for the brand, but we're really always on the lookout for big moments that we can engage and get attention. We gave the team a lot of leverage to live the voice. In fact, it was so much leverage that we didn't have a formalized process internally. Essentially what happened was, we had guidelines for our social voice, and a team that was empowered to do that. We had hired comedians and copywriters to help us build that out. And essentially, they just needed to send a text to me if they were gonna do anything that was kind of pushing the boundaries to say, "is it cool to do this?" And this particular night, this was in 2017, it was like a year ago now, actually, just over a year. I got a text at like 10:15 at night, and one of my social leads said, "hey, we've got this guy saying he desperately wants nuggets for life. We're thinking about challenging him, that if he gets so many retweets we give it to him." So I said how many, they said, "I don't know, maybe 18 million," 'cause the record at the time was like three million or something. Ellen had a record for retweets at like three and a half million. I said go. So I mean, literally, from the time the guy posted it to when the team responded, and it was all their idea to respond, was minutes. It was really fast. And I show up at the office the next morning, and I'm in about 8:00 most mornings, and my social team's usually not in there until like 9:00 or 9:30. You know, they're just morning people. Everyone was there already. So I knew something was up, and I grab the lead of the department and said, "what's going on here?" And they said, "this Nugs for Carter thing is blowing up." And I said I really don't know what Nugs for Carter is. And they said, "well it's that Tweet we sent last night. It became this hashtag of Nugs for Carter, and we think we can make it bigger if we do X, Y, and Z." So we started kind of encouraging it, and tagging influencers, and celebrities. And we put a bunch of money behind it with Twitter. And one of the wonderful things about social is once something starts to organically take off, you can sort of roll it like a snowball and make it bigger. And that's exactly what we did. We did that for a couple of days, which ultimately got him on Ellen, we got Carter on Ellen, and hundreds and hundreds of articles written about it. And it'd become the most retweeted moment in history shortly after that. The moral of the story is we did do all of the homework first. It didn't happen overnight. We didn't have a lucky moment. We were just ready for the moment. We kept the right people, we had the right voice in place, we had clear guidelines, we had an easy process, and we let our people do their jobs. It was awesome, it was absolutely awesome. And since I've left, I've been gone a little while now, several months, they've had several more wins since then. And I think it's because the infrastructure that was designed, that idea that you know your voice, you know how to communicate as a brand, you know what the rules are, and you have the freedom to execute. That lead to a pretty cool thing.

- [Alan] Yeah, it sounds like you had just the perfect formula, or the perfect environment, if you will, the right context, right team, right guidelines, and they just can catch these things. That's awesome, awesome. We'll switch gears. We'll go from Wendy's, to now you're at Papa John's. And you said you've been there eight, nine months. If you think about when you first started, I hear a lot of CMOs, new CMOs, talk about, where do I start. So I want to ask you the same question. Where did you start? What did you start when you rolled in the first day, first month?

- [Brandon] Yeah, so I'm a big believer you start where the consumer's at, and what the current perception is of your brand. Much like Wendy's, I spent my first five or six months just working with the team to understand what's going on here, understand what is the perception of the brand, what are the equities that used to exist, what made the brand successful when it was very, very successful, when it was just first growing. I spent a lot of time doing research with the team here. Also visiting with franchisees, visiting with stakeholders. Spent a lot of time with John, spent a lot of time with Steve Ritchie the COO at the time, now the CEO, and dug into what story should we be telling, what is this brand to people. So I started with a lot of digging. And while we were doing that we were grabbing some low hanging fruit left and right about where are some opportunities in media, what infrastructure do we need to put in place to measure our media. Most brands don't actually have an attribution system to understand when they spend a dollar what do they get back, I think that's crazy. I think you must measure every dollar you put into marketing, especially into media. We didn't have all the right external partners to execute across all modern media. A lot of agencies, for example, are good at one thing. They're good at print, or they're good at outdoor, or they're good at TV, or whatever. But we really needed a partner that was good across many mediums, especially given the fact that more than half of pizza is sold online. This is really an e-commerce brand more than a brick and mortar brand. So I spent a lot of time setting up the infrastructure, really from the summer when I started through winter. And as we started to set up that infrastructure, we began experimenting with the ways to execute, and how consumers might receive the brand, which culminated in us bringing in new creative agency, bringing in new media assistance, hiring a few people internally, restructuring a bit, and actually starting to bring in a new social voice, a new kind of creative look and feel, which you're just starting to see now, and asking a lot of questions we didn't ask before. Like what is the actual problem we're trying to solve as far as a consumer is concerned related to the brand? So a lot of homework essentially to get started.

- [Alan] Right, right.

- [Brandon] We had a bit of a moment, so we had a P.R. kind of issue rise up in November, which pulled us back a few steps. It really actually helped, I think, me and the team understand in a more meaningful way exactly what are the real equities, this brand, and exactly what we should be doing going forward. We haven't addressed that head on quite yet, but that's coming. We've got a few things, but that's coming, because we do know that we've got work to do as a brand and as a organization to make sure that we are a modern marketer, but also a modern brand. But a lot of homework essentially, and I've been here since the summer, and right now, the spring, is just when the work is starting to get in the world.

- [Alan] Right.

- [Brandon] The average tenure of a CMO is something like 18 months, and really it's because the first year is just learning, and the next is trying things.

- [Alan] Right.

- [Brandon] So if I'm still selling pizza at the end of this summer, you know it worked. If it didn't, I wasn't quite a fit. And that's okay.

- [Alan] Right. Right, right, that's funny. It's an interesting market. I mean, the pizza and pizza delivery. You've got, obviously, there's the Dominos story, them coming out and realizing quality was an issue, and trying to reinvent that process, and putting so many interesting, like tracking tech if you will. But in general there's a lot of upstarts as well. If you think about it, it's kind of crazy. They say there's new entrants coming into a market like that. How do you think about, and you don't have to tip your hand necessarily, but how do you think about differentiating Papa John's in a large, I would imagine large, sometimes hard to differentiate category?

- [Brandon] Yeah, I think, I've been in food since Wendy's. I didn't do food before then. But pizza is absolutely a very commoditized market where the assumption is pizza, is pizza, is pizza, and all pizza's good. So that is absolutely a challenge. My core philosophy is you have to focus on a single thing. If you don't focus on a single thing, then consumers don't know how to connect with you. I think the magic of what Dominos has done, and I do think it's magic, I think they've been amazingly successful, and for very simple reasons, focus. They did it that moment when they said, "our pizza's terrible and here's a remix of that." But realistically that is an area of focus. That sort of set the standard that it's edible. Past that, their entire area of focus has been distribution. That's it. It's about distribution through technology, through delivery. They used to be, they said back in the 80s, "we're not a pizza company, we're a delivery company." And that still holds true. Remodeling their stores, pizza pick up and carry out guarantee, everything. Technology, drones, delivery cars, everything is about distribution. They've committed to being the Amazon of pizza. That product is there and it's okay, but that's not the reason that you come to this brand. It's about the distribution. That's genius. That level of focus is genius. It's clean, it's consistent, and if you think about getting pizza to you in a million different ways, really easy, or really fast, or whatever, you think of Dominos because they own distribution. I admire that, it's awesome. Even Little Caesar's. Little Caesar's owns price. They're about cheap, you know? And they don't pull punches when it comes to cheap. Five dollar pizzas that you can pick up at any time, that focus is great. That focus is powerful. I think the reason Pizza Hut has kind of had fits and spurts is because they haven't been very focused. They go from innovation, to price, to discounting, to, now they're getting into sports. They're kind of following the lead that Papa John's ran for years. And I think that's part of the reason they haven't consistently grown over the last several years. Now that they're starting to get their ducks in a row, which is great for them, I don't know if it's good for other pizza categories, but it's great for them, 'cause they're still the biggest player. I mean, Dominos has more revenue as of this year, but still, they're a 900 pound gorilla.

- [Alan] Right.

- [Brandon] Papa John's really was founded for a very clear reason. It was nobody in the chains of pizza, nobody who's that scale is really about the product. Pizza Hut wasn't really about the product, they're about product innovation, they're about dining in, all this stuff. But nobody's really about the product. And what happened when Papa John's was founded was John said, "we're gonna be about product." And that's still a white space in pizza, I would argue. The people who own product right now are locals. So half of all pizza sales are local sales, there's almost no other restaurant categories, none that I know of anyways, like that. So really it's about owning product versus owning distribution, or innovation, or something else. Better ingredients, better pizza is kind of a clean articulation of that. I think it's a bit, maybe superficial for modern consumers, we have to work on defining "better." But product really is the thing that is the white space in pizza. I'm shocked that nobody else has grabbed that. When you think about it in Mexican food, Chipotle grabbed that before they got into trouble for some of their health stuff.

- [Alan] Right.

- [Brandon] In burgers, Wendy's it with Fresh, Never Frozen. But before them, Five Guys and others like Five Guys, and then they all kind of grabbed it. And every space, someone says you're gonna hold up the food you're gonna put in your mouth. And in pizza, it really hasn't happened to any major extent. So that's the opportunity, I think, in what we're working on. And I'm not telling you anything that's a surprise. Everybody who works at Pizza Hut and Dominos, they know that. They know what their space is. And Little Caesar's, they know what their space is. But I would argue we haven't expressed our point of differentiation, which is Better Pizza, in a meaningful way in the last few years. And that's the opportunity for us, is to embrace that idea that you've actually gotta eat this thing. And you want to love what you eat. And I think that's the white space that still exists.

- [Alan] Nice. So you talked about new work breaking. Tell us a little about the new work, and what that work's meant to do for you guys.

- [Brandon] It's We talked a little bit before about the pizza space being really commoditized. Everybody sort of does the same stuff, you know, the cheese pull shot where you've got cheese stretching, you know, six, eight, 10 inches. You've got these helicopter shots with food, you've got big, aggressive price points, and 50% off, and I jokingly call it Buddie's Carpet Barn craziness, where it's this local ad where you're just selling everything on sale all the time. It's kind of all very similar, I would argue. That one is a bit different in the category, but by and large, the creative is really hard to distinguish brand to brand. And our opportunity really was to break free of that. To have a different look and feel. To have an expression that's a bit more modern, a bit more connected into where an audience that sort of isn't paying attention to brands might actually grab the ride. So what you're seeing from our new partner laundry service is work that's built a little bit more around the assumptions of digital distribution, and content that works in digital distribution, and using advertising as a form of entertainment to grab you, and then sort of say, "hey, this is why we're giving you this moment." The specific creative that just launched is, we have a specific offer, it's $12.99 for a pizza, a side, and a two liter of soda. And normally, the way you'd sell that is you'd have a big picture of a pizza rotating in the middle, and bread sticks on the side, and a two liter sitting there, and you'd pan around it and say, "hey, all this food for just $12.99 only this week at Papa John's." Or sort of sound like monster truck rally, or whatever.

- [Alan] Right.

- [Brandon] That's just the way the category tends to do it. Instead, what we decided to do was say, well we want to ladder up this idea that we're actually about better stuff. We haven't quite explained that to the world yet, we've still work to do to do that. We've got more work coming to flush that out. But we actually wanted to celebrate the idea that there's a lot of good stuff here for just $12.99. So the idea the agency brought forward was 12.99 seconds of better. So your typical television execution, for example, is 15 seconds. A lot of people on YouTube same way, and other resources. It's literally 12.99 seconds of something that's kind of cool, like puppies playing. It's a countdown on the screen. And then at the end of it, or at the beginning of it, depending on execution, it says this is kind of brought to you by this $12.99 meal deal from Papa John's. When I first saw the idea, I was like, that's genius. You know, it's simple, it's clean, it's straightforward. Is it the most breakthrough thing in history? No. Is it gonna win Cannes Lions? No, its not changing the planet. But it's simple, it's clean, and it actually speaks to better, even if superficially. So my expectation, it's gonna take us a dozen tries to get the new look and feel perfect. It just will, that's how new campaigns usually work. 'Cause it's not perfect out the gate 99 out 100 times, but it's a great start to break free of the conventions that are in the category, that I think pull every brand backwards. So if we can be a little different, and we can be different in service to better, and the idea that we're focused on better, to me that's a great start to actually differentiate the brand. And the $12.99 offer is actually very different than what a lot of other people are doing too. Just the offer itself. You know, a lot of pizza brands focus on percent off. Papa John's has done that quite a bit, a percent off. Or they focus on very low price point deals. Instead, what I'm trying to express here is you can feed your family, and it's actually reasonable. And you can actually access better in a way that it doesn't cost you an arm and a leg, and kind of do it in a fun way, like with people playing basketball, or puppies, or a guy racing a drag racer, or whatever.

- [Alan] Right, right.

- [Brandon] And if you actually look online, there's dozens of executions online. We're taking quasi viral videos, and kind of building it in the same construct. And so far it seems to be working, people are responding very positively to the creative.

- [Alan] Right. I just had this thought too, I mean another thing you're doing with that 12.99 seconds is creating a sense of scarcity. Right, like it's going to end. And I don't if the psychology person in me is like, huh, I wonder if that's triggering more behavior? You'll have to tell me what the results are.

- [Brandon] When we wrap our quarter we'll talk, how's that?

- [Alan] That sounds good, sounds good. I didn't think about that, but with the countdown clock there is that notion of this is gonna end, and what do I do next. If I really like it, I want to see it again.

- [Brandon] Look at that, we're smarter than we thought.

- [Alan] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it brings me to a comment in an article I was reading that, I think Campaign had interviewed you and said they only wanted one word responses. And there was this question that they asked which really intrigued me. What is the future of creative? And your one word answer was entertainment. And so, love for you to explain why entertainment.

- [Brandon] Yeah so first of all, I think that's a really creative way to do an article, it's to have one words,, and it's easy to babble on for 20 minutes, but it's pretty hard to distill it down to one word. The reason I said entertainment was, media's nature was disruption for a long, long time. Where you were trying to consume a television program, or read an article in a magazine, or listening to music on the radio, and you had to put up with brands interrupting that experience in order for the experience to be free. And I think that model is dying, and for good reason. In part because the generation is growing up that has access to just content everywhere. So you don't have to put up with bad advertising, and you don't even have to put up with advertising at all if you pay enough. But it's also dying, I think, because that was built to functionally allow a medium to survive, that that function is not needed anymore. You can pay for HBO Go, or Netflix. You can buy Spotify and not have to listen to ads if you choose. So I think the future is moving to a place where content has more inherent value. And therefore people will be willing to actually pay a little bit potentially for content versus just kind of trade airtime, or ad time, or their data. For example, you see a lot of stuff around Facebook right now on the same topic. Or access to content. And it's gonna take a lot of time, but I think this is no different than the transition to cable TV. This is no different than the transition to streaming, which is hot and heavy right now, you know? So the future for brands then, to actually communicate in that new world, is to actually produce content worth consuming. And you hear a lot of people talk about things like advertorials, and on the content manager of this brand, or whatever, but a lot of that stuff has been built to kind of cover up ads so they feel like they belong in a context, versus to actually make content that's worth consuming.

- [Alan] Right.

- [Brandon] In and of itself. And when brands do that it's kind of magical, and I think the challenge to marketers, and the marketers who are learning this new world, is to figure out how to do that properly. Nike does it very well. Apple tends to do it pretty well. Their unveiling events, Apple's unveiling events, are their own media shows. It's nontraditional media. Elon Musk for Tesla, instead of buying a Superbowl spot, he shot a car into space. You know, that's genius as far as I'm concerned. I'm not saying it's about stunts, and P.R. stunts and all that. That's one side of it, and probably is the superficial side of it. But I do think you have to earn your time in someone's face, or in their ears, or whatever. As a brand, that's hard. We're gonna be talking to producers and artists versus copywriters necessarily. That's why you have to hire a comedian to manage your social feed instead of somebody who's written ad copy their whole life.

- [Alan] Right, right.

- [Brandon] I think that's awesome. I think that's for brands because we can actually be authentic, and real, and interesting, and earn our time. But it's actually really good for consumers. So if the trade off of consuming the program is that you have to watch 30 seconds of this stupid ad, instead you actually can consume something worthwhile where the content you're actually reaching for is the good content. That's awesome. That's an awesome world of marketing I think.

- [Alan] Yeah, I agree, I agree. I think it's overused example, but I think Red Bull was an early person that figured this out, or early brand that figured out the whole creating content worth consuming, to use your phrase, with all of their media that they produce, and events, and it's sponsored by Red Bull, but I would just go to get the ski jump, or the airplane assault, whatever it might be that they're producing.

- [Brandon] And it's far from perfect right now, but there are some brands that are doing it well. I don't think it's a solution to everything yet. But to me, this is a wonderful change. And it scares a lot, I think, traditional ad people, because they understand how to buy 30 second TV spots. They understand what TRPs do, they understand what compressions, and reach, and click-through rates are. And this is totally different. This is a relationship you build with consumers that is kind of symbiotic, where you actually appreciate each other for deeper reasons. And most brands are really bad at it. Papa John's is not good at it yet, I'll be very clear. We're not good at it yet. But I think that's where brands should go. And not all in, you've got to balance it until the world's there. But I love a world where I don't have to consume what feels like an ad, I think that's great.

- [Alan] Cool. Well, I want to shift gears a little bit. You've got a significant number of physical locations. I think there's over 5,000 worldwide, not sure I have the right number. But you're clearly an omnichannel business. Especially, I'm in the U.S., when I go to order a pizza, I'm gonna start online most likely. How do you think about managing that customer experience across those contact points? Whether it's the web to delivery driver, the web to pick up, whatever it might be, how do you think about it?

- [Brandon] We do have 5,200 locations all around the world. The majority of those are in North America. Just over 3,000 are in the U.S., and a couple hundred more in Canada, and in Mexico. So it is a big thing to actually manage not just, I mean, it's hard enough to manage TV versus digital, much less digital advertising versus digital assets, like your dot com, and social, and then you get to the physical experience and delivery, and you have this whole other e-commerce of the business that's so big and functional, that branding that can be hard. And then you've got physical human beings that actually have to interact with other human beings that are buying from you and you have to manage those folks. So I kind of have a similar challenge without the heavy e-commerce focus in my last gig. And the way that we started building that out, and it's never done, I would argue, but the way we started building it out is with that first step of defining what your brand is. And I know that sounds cliche', but it's true. If you have a clear brand voice, this is who we are, this is what we believe in, this is our area of focus, everything gets a little easier after that. Because then all of a sudden, we're not worried about all these little shiny objects that pop up every single day. Instead, you have a clear direction, and goal, and voice as a brand. I use as an example my last gig. The big moments that made me smile ear to ear was after we had started really getting a lot of press for our social voice, and the Twitter activity, and Facebook activity that we were doing so well on, and won a bunch of awards, and all that stuff. The moment that actually, it dawned on me that it's working is when Buzzfeed did a piece where they went to Wendy's employees, and we didn't sponsor this, this is one they did on their own, and asked them to speak as the Twitter handle of Wendy's. Asked them to be snarky, and to be the challenger, and to embody the voice. And they did it perfectly. Everyone they interviewed did it perfectly. They wrote, they put what my copywriters, what my social team would have written, and said it out loud to Buzzfeed. I mean, I almost cried, I was so overjoyed. The fact that okay, it's working. We're actually in the culture of the business. So again, it sounds cliche', but you've got to establish that voice first. Because that's really what builds everything. And that takes time. That took us two plus years at Wendy's. It just takes time. I think the other thing is you have to actually live the experience. So you think about, you describe your pizza buying moment, probably online. Well odds are what you're doing is sitting on the couch with your tablet in your lap and a phone in your pocket, and the television's running in the background, and you're starting to get hungry, and you scream out to whoever your significant other is that's in the house, "hey I'm thinking about ordering pizza." They scream back something mumbled, you say okay, I'll just figure it out. And then you go through a process where you probably do a little digging for deals, or do a little digging, maybe an ad come up while you're thinking about it, it kind of pushes you to go to a particular brand or get a particular deal. But the experience is not linear. It is not literally, I saw a television ad so I bought your pizza. That's not how human beings work.

- [Alan] Right.

- [Brandon] You have all these touch points through your social networks, through all the media you consume, through the experiences you have that build to something that tickles the back of your mind that says I'm interested in this brand or this product. And I think the marketers job is one, establish that voice because that sets a consistent tickle in the back of your mind. But two is actually understand all those touchpoints and how people make decisions. And different people make decisions in different ways, so it's actually really complicated 'cause it's not just one person's complicated decision, it's hundreds of different groups of peoples' complicated decisions. And in a modern world where you have dozens, and dozens of media sources that you're exposed to every hour, that's a big task. So you have to build out tools, and rules, and measurements to understand how you actually are reaching and influencing someone in their behavior. And that takes some time, that's not a stunt. That's not just the shoot the car in the sky that Elon did. That was him understanding that his voice is all about innovation. And I'm going to challenge anyone who challenges the idea of innovation. And I have to make sacrifices on what I can and can't do. I'm sure a billion people told him, "just put an engine in the thing and make it a hybrid. Then everybody will buy it." He said no, I'm not gonna do that. I'm gonna do it the right way. And then I'm gonna build this battery, and I'm gonna stick it in peoples' houses, and then I'm gonna stick this crazy thing on your roof so you can generate your own electricity.

- [Alan] Right.

- [Brandon] All in on a singular concept. So I'm answering your question in a really long way, but essentially I think you have to define where your area of focus is, and how your brand is articulated as a voice through that area of focus. And then you've got to figure out how the consumers actually connect with that, and experiment, and measure, and learn on how you can make those connections actually result in business. And it's not a single tactic, it's not a single idea, it never is. It's a million little things that add up to a moment of growth. And a lot of brands aren't patient enough. A lot of consumers aren't patient enough, but really a lot of brands aren't patient enough to build out both a voice and those points of connection, which leads to a lot of inconsistent brands, which don't have that little tickle in the back of your head so you would instead order from someone else.

- [Alan] Right, right. Love it. So you've clearly been a change agent both at prior posts as well as your current gig. What advice would you give other peers, other CMOs, that are trying to be a change agent?

- [Brandon] Well first I'd argue that here I'm not quite a change agent yet. We're just getting started. The advice I'd give is nobody sees the bullshit in the background. Nobody sees the power points, nobody sees the politics, nobody sees the internal arguments, nobody sees the power struggles, nobody sees any of that garbage. Human beings, real people, all they see is the work. That's it. Forget about the politics, you forget about the bullshit, and just remember the work is what people actually connect with and see, and focus on that. You can be more successful, I've found.

- [Alan] I love it.

- [Brandon] It's really hard though, when you get stuck in the day to day of the politics, and the internal strife, and the logistics, and the garbage that comes along with any big company to lose heart, and just say we'll do it the way we've always done it, or whatever. That's a clear recipe to be generic, and tacky, and a failure.

- [Alan] Right, right.

- [Brandon] And you just have to be willing to believe in the work. If you're a champion for the work, and for the people doing the work, eventually you win. But you just have to stand up for the work. If there's any single piece of advice I'd give beyond stand behind the work, is put a bunch of money the bank so you can always stand up for the work and walk away if you feel like it.

- [Alan] I had a former mentor/boss that used to call that "my F you money bag."

- [Brandon] Yeah, me and my wife call it our "F it fund." So when it's kind of rough, six months at a gig and decides he wants to start looking, then let's make sure the "F off fund" is well funded so we can get out.

- [Alan] That's right, that's right. Stepping back from the interview and talking about Papa John's, I'm gonna ask you. I love to get to know the person I'm talking to a little bit more, and I think listeners do to. So I love asking this question, which is: is there an experience of your past that defines or makes up who you are today?

- [Brandon] I can give you a bunch of cliche' moments like my first child was born, or when I got married, or whatever, and all of those things,

- [Alan] Are true, yes.

- [Brandon] And my future. I would say the first time that I really stood up for work I loved affected my career more than anything else. And it was very early. I was at an agency and did a piece of work that I really, really loved. And I swung for the fences with it. It didn't get in the world, by the way. But that gave me this kind of stir that said, no the work is kind of internal. It's bigger than you, it's bigger than the decisions that are being made, it's bigger than the politics, it's bigger than all this stuff. The work itself, if you love the work and you've got data to back it up why it's good, that's a rush, it's a serious rush. And then I remember it served me well. But I remember the first time at Wendy's, that something I loved and most people hated worked. And it really worked. Like, it blew the doors off. That' a rush. It's like, I actually know what I'm doing! It worked! And then you see that same thing. And that's really what, I think, most creatives kind of have in them. They have this moment, they just want their arts to be seen. And they kind of see it as art, and it's your job as a person running a brand to balance the art and the sales. But that's probably the biggest thing that influenced me, was just this moment where it was about the work. It wasn't about making people happy inside, it was about making millions of people in the real world happy. And that was really exciting. And the second I let go of this idea that I need to be friends with everybody internally, I need to just be agreeable, and instead champion what I, in my gut, and what the data tells me, is going to drive the change that I'm being asked to accomplish, that was a huge moment in my career and my life. But my daughter being born was awesome too.

- [Alan] Of course, of course. So this may be similar. What fuels you, or what drives you?

- [Brandon] It is the idea that I can actually affect something significant. And it's not a power trip, I don't want to make it sound like that at all, 'cause that's not what it is. Papa John's for example, there's 120,000 people that work for this brand. There are 400 different franchisee groups. So I have literally hundreds of thousands of families that are counting on this work to be successful. And the idea that when we produce something like a commercial that has puppies in it, and it can actually drive the success and the fortunes of hundreds of thousands of families, it's a bit overwhelming, but it's also kind of this humbling sense that I'm actually doing something positive. And it may sound ridiculous, 'cause I was trying to sell cheeseburgers, I'm trying to sell pizzas, or I'm trying to sell machine tools, or whatever in one of these gigs, or processors in a computer, or whatever. Who cares what the thing is? But it actually affects peoples' real lives, and their success, and whether they can retire early, and whether or not they get to have a great vacation, or they get a bonus at Christmas, and all this stuff. And it's not all just about sales, but the idea that you can drive that, and you can affect so many people in a positive way, is amazing to me. Now the pressure of that is you can also crash the world if you don't do it right. And I'm okay with that pressure. But the fact is that that drive to actually grow a brand, and to speak about something bigger, to me, this changeover, even from traditional interruption marketing entertainment, that's actually good for the world. And to be kind of a champion for that change in marketing that's happening around us, and some people are still fighting tooth and nail, because they want the old world where it was all about TRPs and 30 second spots, and all this garbage to be successful. I get a huge kick out of that. The fact that people get excited about the future of marketing. We're not just used car salesmen, we actually do something, not to offend used car salesmen, but we're actually doing something that's meaningful for the world. That sounds a bit trite because I'm not saving babies, I'm selling slices of pizza. But it just has that much bigger effect than that one pepperoni pizza that went out the door because somebody thought that that puppy execution was cute, or because somebody thought that Tweet was funny, or because someone got a kick out of the fact that we gave this kid named Carter nuggets for the rest of his life because he was goofing with us at 10:30 at night on a weeknight.

- [Alan] Right, right.

- [Brandon] That's awesome.

- [Alan] Interesting. I like it, I like it. So most marketers are kind of students of the business, I should say. What brands, are there any other brands, or companies, or causes that you follow, or you think other people should take notice of?

- [Brandon] Yes, I'm a bit of an advertising junkie, so I love great advertising, and I love when brands do things that are totally different. You know, I think a lot of smaller brands do really interesting things, and some smaller brands become big brands because of the interesting things they may do. I think the story right now of Tito's Vodka is amazing. That's a brand that doesn't run any really traditional advertising, and is now literally the biggest spirits brand there is, single brand. I mean they're beating Johnnie Walker, and Jack Daniels. Just 'cause they have a good product, and they talk about it in kind of a real way. I'm not gonna throw the cliche' ones at you like Apple and all these guys, but there are so many brands right now, I love the, P&G, a big brand, the moms effort they did around the Olympics was amazing. Amazing. I love what Tide did at the Superbowl. And again, that's a big cliche' to say the Superbowl, but I know the guys who worked on that stuff, and actually one of the main guys now works for me through my agency, and another one is a good friend that used to work for me at Wendy's. I feel very connected to that work. But just playing with the idea that anything could be a Tide ad, that was genius. It was awesome. I think the fact that people are always creating new stuff that's compelling and interesting in marketing gives us huge hope that it's not just all about who's got the best pitch man, or who's got the most media, or who's got the most airtime. Because a lot of brands are doing really, really cool stuff today. I think a lot of them get on big enough stages, which is sad. I love what I'm seeing from Tito's, I love what Tide's doing there, I love what P&G's doing, there's a bunch of brands I could probably babble off in 30 minutes.

- [Alan] No, that's good. So last question for you. What do you think the future of marketing is gonna look like? We've alluded to a number of things.

- [Brandon] I think it's much more woven into culture. I think the fact that Kanye West can start Tweeting for three or four days, like he just started to, and everybody and their brother pays attention to it, should be a wake up call to brands who don't take cultural and content marketing seriously. I think it's less artificial, it's less bullshit, it's less plastic, it's less about who has the biggest bullhorn, and it's more about who has the best thing to say, who has the most interesting thing to say. So I'm really exciting for marketing, 'cause I'm hoping my nine year old daughter isn't subjected to this same bad advertising that I was subjected to my entire life. I'm 38 years old now. I'm hoping by the time she's in her 20s, brands have figured out that it's not about interrupting people, annoying people, just reducing prices, and giving stuff away. It's much more about actually being relevant and interesting. And I think millennials and Gen Zs, and I hate using those names just because it's so cliche' now to throw out the demo, but I think a younger audience who grew up in a world, people say millennials and Gen Zs don't have long attention spans. I think that's garbage. I don't think that's true at all. I think if you grew up with a smartphone in your pocket, you have access to so much content, that you don't have to watch garbage. So if we're in a world that brands actually understand that, and understand that it's not about your attention span, it's about whether you're worth hearing. Worth paying attention to. That is a much better world. So I'm excited about what's coming, and I think what we're gonna see is marketing that is much more driven by "you're worth listening to," and much less about "you're the loudest, you have the most money to spend, you have the shiniest thing."

- [Alan] I love it. I really like that reflection on the generation differences. I've never heard it put that way, but it makes so much sense. Like we all, being Gen X myself, we always say, "oh the millennials." We shove it off, but it's us, right? Like if we were interesting enough they'd probably pay attention to us, right?

- [Brandon] That's exactly right. I think brands need to earn the right to be heard. And I'm not there yet with Papa John's, I've got awhile til I get there. I've got some big work to do, actually, to get there. But the first step to fixing any problem is accepting the problem. And I'm hoping more brands accept that you actually have to be worth hearing. It's not about TRPs or God knows what, it's actually about being worth hearing. So I love that. I think it's gonna be a great world for our kids one day.

- [Alan] Well thank you so much for coming on the show.

- [Brandon] Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

- [Alan] Marketing Today is brought to you by Atomck. Atomck focuses on unleashing the growth potential for clients we serve. Atomck is a strategic consulting agency specializing in business, marketing, brand, and innovation. Our singular goal is to help you accelerate your efforts with the right mix of expertise, analysis, and creativity. Check us out at Atomck dot com, A T O M C K dot com. Hi it's Alan again. Marketing Today was created and produced by me, with writing and editing by Kevin Greeley, social media support by Megan Woods, art and graphic design by Sarah Dell. If you're new to Marketing Today, please feel free to write us a review on iTunes, or your favorite listening platform. Don't forget to subscribe and tell your friends and colleagues about the show. I love to hear from listeners, and you can contact me at Marketing Today Podcast dot com. There you'll also find complete show notes with links to anything we talk about on any episode. You can also search our archives. I'm Alan Hart, and this is Marketing Today.


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