What's Working in Marketing™: Lessons From Social Media Manager To CMO with Brandon Rhoten, Fractional CMO and Brand Advisor

Content & Messaging
Brand & Positioning Strategy
Cross-Channel
September 6, 2022
Marketing & Advertising

What's Working in Marketing™ is a podcast where we uncover what’s working across the digital landscape by tapping into the world’s best data-backed research and through candid conversations with industry experts. Join us if you're ready to learn what's working when it comes to your marketing efforts.

On this episode, we spoke with Brandon Rhoten, a CMO and growth advisor who’s always seeking to build killer creative, clever media campaigns, and impossible-to-ignore brands. He’s got a successful track record too, having formed the first ever digital social team at Wendy’s. From his early days in the agency world to launching some of the most talked about social media campaigns on the internet during his time with Wendy’s, and becoming the CMO for Papa John’s, this episode covers so much. On top of his experiences with those companies, he shares actionable tips for marketing and social media managers looking to climb the ladder toward a c-suite role. We talk about getting to know your customer, staying true to what a brand stands for, and how to achieve organizational buy-in. Regardless of where you are in your career or your scope of marketing responsibilities, this is one you won’t want to miss.

You can listen to What's Working in Marketing™ – A Podcast by RightMetric wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Tune In, iHeartRadio, and Pocket Casts.

Here’s a full transcript of our conversation with Brandon:

Charlie Grinnell: Welcome to What's Working in Marketing, a podcast for marketers that uncovers what's working across the digital landscape by tapping into the world's best data-backed research and through candid conversations with industry experts. I'm your host, Charlie Grinnell. On this episode, I'm joined by Brandon Rhoten. Brandon, thank you very much for joining me today.

Brandon Rhoten: Happy to be here, Charlie.

Charlie Grinnell: I always say I'm super excited with every single guest, but you're someone, when I reached out, and I actually got a response from you, I was super stoked and over the moon, and I'm really excited to dig into the topic at hand today but before we kind of dig into that, can we just kind of start with your career journey to date? You've had a really interesting career. Some would've called you maybe the original gangster of like sassy fast food restaurants. I'd love to kind of hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah, so I'd credit the team with that much more than me, but I started out in marketing on the agency side. I think if you're going into marketing, agencies are a great place to drink from the fire hose, learn really, really fast, understand how to build media and campaigns and teams and all that stuff. That led me to Wendy's, where a new kind of management team was coming in, and the brand was in a position where it wasn't growing for a long time and the new team was intended to reposition the brand and rework it, and as part of that, I got to build the digital social team for Wendy's. This is back in 2011 timeframe.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: After some testing and some repositioning that led us to doing the cool stuff that they started to do on social, the team started doing on social, and they kind of kept giving me things to do at Wendy's. So by the end, I was running all consumer-facing communications, advertising, media, all that stuff.

Charlie Grinnell: Wow.

Brandon Rhoten: That led me to become the CMO of Papa John's. I was only there for about a year and the reason was I was there during a pretty tumultuous time that ultimately saw John leaving the brand so the founder of the brand, then I went to Pot Belly where I got a totally different challenge, got to rework a menu, rework a pricing structure, all the other side of marketing and kind of decided to hang it up at about 40. So I decided to semi-retire and frankly got pulled back into consulting and a bunch of other stuff just because I got bored, drove my wife nuts and all that stuff. So that's what I've been doing the last about year and a half, two years is helping out friends in the industry that sort of need to reposition, rework, build a team, whatever but yeah, I think that the claim to fame is probably the Wendy's work even though if he add up all the rest, it probably is more dollars.

Charlie Grinnell: Fair enough. Fair enough. I want to dive a bit more into the Wendy's thing. You kind of talked about how you had this green light to reposition and explore really different strategies, quite frankly, because at the time thinking back to, as soon as you said, yeah, I started there in 2011, my mind went like, holy crap, what was the kind of time and place back then? I'm like, we think about that now in 2022, we're like, yeah, duh, this is kind of how things roll but back then, but it was probably being Christopher Columbus and being like, what is this kind of thing? We're in a new land. Can you kind of talk about what that mindset was like and some of those successes or things that maybe you didn't expect happen?

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah. I mean, I think one it's important to understand context, like you said, so back in 2011, the hot brands sort of in the space where folks Chipotle and Five Guys and it was these new kind of generation of QSRs that were coming in to give restaurants that were starting to emerge as fast food.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: The Wendy's of the world, the Arby's of the world, you name the brand, were kind of stale at that time and it was showing up at the sales. It was showing up in traffic numbers, the people who were dominating where these new guys.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: In part, the reason for that was the brands that grew up in the '80s and the early '90s had a playbook and the playbook was essentially you scale media through traditional means mostly television and that results in a lot of awareness, which then causes trial and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah so there were all these correlations between traditional media and result that people were following. They just quit working in the early 2000s for most brands. Some brands were still figuring it out, like Taco Bell was pretty hot then, they had some cool stuff going on, but most fast food restaurants weren't sort of in that vein yet.

So the impetus for bringing in a digital function to Wendy's from the new CEO and management that came in was essentially we're seeing something in this news QSRs, these new fast food, fast casual, and we're seeing something in folks like Taco Bell that we wish we had so I was brought in to help build that and because the history was all in this traditional media, there was a lot of testing and a lot of frankly, heartburn, associated with actually trying this new stuff because the belief was, hey, we grew up with this other stuff, so why don't we just do this other stuff really well?

So yeah, that context certainly was that there was the bet being made that this new form of communication would be successful, but it took a lot of trial to get to the point where it was accepted, probably two years, a year and a half.

Charlie Grinnell: Wow. And that's a long time. I'm thinking back through it. When I think the Wendy's brand pre-2011, I think of Dave Thomas in the commercials with the girl that Wendy with the red hair, her kind of, with her dad and then massive kind of switch and I guess where my brain goes is I felt that sometimes I've seen marketers and I've felt this myself where almost this is how we've always done it, it has kind of been a crutch where this goes against our brand and just brand can be a crutch for things to keep change at bay. How do you navigate something like that? 'Cause you didn't go from a little change, it went from home style homey to nope, opposite side of the pendulum.

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah, I mean, I will tell you, it feels much slower inside than it does outside and a company of that size, it takes years to make these sort of changes and a lot of small tests that essentially help prove that you're not going to break something and it's actually going to improve something.

Charlie Grinnell: Yep.

Brandon Rhoten: So it feels much slower, but the way we did it as a team and it certainly wasn't just me, there were people above me and at my level and below me that were part of this process, what we did essentially was small tests so we said, well of course we need to reposition the brand. So how do we reposition younger? You know, you said it, Dave was what people knew over a certain age, under a certain age, there was kind of nothing that connected them to Wendy's maybe the products that's about it.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: But then we had to run a bunch of small tests. Let's do this with Facebook and see what happens. Let's do this with Twitter and see what happens. Let's run more media that the message starts to shift and be a little more aggressive and what I had to keep using as my crutch was, well, this actually, what we're doing, is just an articulation of what we did in the '80s. Think back when in the '80s when they ran things like Where's the beef? That's the first time a brand called out other brands and said your product isn't looking up to what it should, it's garbage and it was aggressive at that time, very aggressive. In fact, most of the franchisees at the time didn't even like it in the '80s so it was very similar kind of a tactic. We said, "Well, what is the modern articulation of that?"

Charlie Grinnell: Interesting.

Brandon Rhoten: And the modern articulation of challenging the industry to do better was what we started to do in social, we started picking on other brands. We started running all sorts of digital campaigns that were very different than what everybody else ran. If you go back and look at history, we won our first major creative award as a brand ever in 2012. Ever.

Charlie Grinnell: Huh.

Brandon Rhoten: It was almost 50 years old at that point and it was the first time we ever won a creative award.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: And it was for digital video where we had Nick Lachey sing to a cheeseburger and the whole thing, you start to do these things that break the ice, that create permission to say, okay, this is starting to work.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: People are trying to talk about this. A younger generation starting to respond to this stuff. It is a slow, arduous process that you have to have faith that your research and your foundation, we are repositioning for this purpose, valid and little winds start adding up and then it starts to snowball and it took a long time. I mean, literally we didn't have kind of our first major coverage of the work until probably 2013 so two years plus.

Charlie Grinnell: Wow.

Brandon Rhoten: And we started winning awards in 2012 and we started really getting more attention in 2014, in 2015 and the kind of tweets, the nuggets for  tweet didn't have anything until 16 or 17 so all these moments they add up over times, they start to create faith internally that this works. So you have to move slow, but deliberately and constantly go back to the reason why you're doing this thing.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. There's something that I want to touch on that you just said that I didn't really realize, but it just clicked for me is going back to what you did in the '80s, were kind of calling out other companies about their frozen beef or whatever. That is a fascinating, internal communication tactic that you used to convince them to try something and I think I've had other guests on here before, a guy named John Huntinghouse, he's the CMO at Tab Bank in Utah and he was talking about the need for alignment in language to get things done behind the scenes internally. And that, as soon as you said that, I was like, oh my gosh, that's it. These people have already done bold things, it just hasn't been for a while and if you point that out to them to be like, "Hey, we've done stuff like this before, remember this?"

Then that aligns with the brand and if it was done back then it can be done again now, that sort of thing so that's fascinating. I didn't really put two and two together until you just said that and I mean, what a brilliant strategy, because half, for any marketer listening out there, we know that a lot of time, we're just trying to get internal buy-in to get everybody rolling in the same direction.

Brandon Rhoten: Totally and I think most brands, when they're young, do really cool things that make them get attention and as they get older, they get much more conservative 'cause it's all about protecting what you have and less about growing at an exponential rate anymore. So I advise every marketer to say, you got to remember why the brand got cool in the first place. Why did you become famous in the first place? And if you can unearth that and then figure out a way to spin that in a modern context, your chances of success are so much better, one because of the internal thing that  is people will immediately say, well, I understand the reference that you're going back to. I understand that this worked X years ago and therefore should work again and it's true to what our DNA is as a brand. I think another reason it actually works is because there was magic in that original thing.

Charlie Grinnell: Totally.

Brandon Rhoten: Otherwise you wouldn't have grown.

Charlie Grinnell: Yep.

Brandon Rhoten: So go back to that magic if you can and build on it.

Charlie Grinnell: Mm-hmm. Huh, that is so interesting. Okay, we could talk about Wendy's all day, but we have other topics to talk about so I do want to switch gears here. Talking kind of about the topic of the episode here. We've kind of titled this episode Lessons from Social Media Manager to CEO. You've been in a really interesting spot in that you've kind of worked on the social digital side and then gone up to leading whole kind of organizations from a marketing perspective, you touched on it in your intro, just around doing things like pricing and creating a new menu.

As someone who worked in social myself, I couldn't imagine having to design a new menu or maybe do pricing stuff like that. So can you just talk about that journey for you? How did it kind of progress and what can social managers do to become bigger players within their company?

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah, so I think the benefit of being someone who runs digital social for an organization is you are really on the front lines and you have more data than most other people have, especially at a big company right? So your ability to actually get in touch with what the customers want, what moves them, what makes them act towards your brand? What makes them participate with your brand? You know things others don't.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: So my suggestion is you have to start thinking about the bigger problems, the bigger reasons that people aren't coming to you or the bigger reasons they are coming to you and usually they come through pretty clearly in that digital world that you're playing in. You can see what interests people, what draws them in, what turns them off. You have to be able to take that from just the context of how it works within a particular platform and go bigger than that.

I really believe a marketer must be, I don't care what function you're on, you have to be media agnostic. You just have to not care the channel of communication. You have to care where your customer is and where they make decisions and then what can you use to influence their decisions and ultimately social, digital or great paths to start in but if you start thinking about those bigger problems and think in media agnostic terms, video is video, it doesn't matter where it happens. In fact, brand communications are brand communications, doesn't matter if they're video or if they're text or if they're  or what they are. If you start thinking bigger and then you let the tactics kind of ladder up to that bigger objective, your world starts to shift really quickly.

And if you find yourself ever saying, I just wish this other thing worked better, or I wish this other thing worked as well as this digital channel or I wish TV was as measurable, you have no excuses anymore. Everything is measurable now. Everything is able to be influenced by anybody in an organization. Anything can impact the customer so think about those larger problems. We never would've solved the issues we had at Wendy's if we just would've said, let's be funny on Twitter. It had to start with something bigger and it had to start with reposition this brand to reach a younger audience and in doing that, we're going to use mechanisms like digital social, and let's test to those mechanisms and what works actually might make its way to television, might make its way to other places. You just have to stop getting stuck in your channel.

You have to know your channel so don't, that doesn't... Don't confuse that with don't know your channels, but you can't get stuck in them. You have to think about how do I solve these objectives more broadly and get the organization to participate in the means of solving these problems we have.

Charlie Grinnell: Totally. I think what I've seen at least is a lot of people will hone in on that specific output but to your point, that's a tactic and that tactic ladders up to a strategy and that strategy ladders up to a marketing objective and that marketing objective better be supporting a business objective. Right?

Brandon Rhoten: Exactly.

Charlie Grinnell: And all those things need to be linked together.

Brandon Rhoten: And the balance that I think to strike, the art in this is you have to understand all those levels and have solid logic that backs it without analysis paralysis.

Charlie Grinnell: Yes.

Brandon Rhoten: Because the other side of this is you still have to act. You have to pick stuff in the world so you have to test things and get things out. I think the two main causes of failure at organizations for marketing programs are because you don't have that logic ladder worked out that gets you all the way to the business objective.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: That's one side and the other side is you spend all your time on that. So you don't actually put anything in the world. Nobody sees your damn PowerPoints. Nobody.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: They see the work. So you have to find the balance between those two things so you can execute and learn as you execute while you're competent that you're achieving those larger business objectives and there's very few people who play right in the middle of those two things, which is where the magic happens. That's when you actually get stuff done.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. I always say it's so funny. We say this internally with a lot of our clients at the end of the day, marketers have to do shit.

Brandon Rhoten: Yes.

Charlie Grinnell: Art for the sake of commerce. Commerce being the key word. To drive commerce, you need to do things you know?

Brandon Rhoten: You totally do, and you need to measure those things and they have to ladder up to business objectives. So-

Charlie Grinnell: Exactly.

Brandon Rhoten: …the balance between figuring out, okay, this logically will help us accomplish our business objective through that chain that you described, while actually putting things in the world. I always tell my team, it's okay to put things in that are half baked and that doesn't sound good and some people will be like, "Oh, you're not proud of that work yet?" The things that have won awards, gotten Wendy's and other companies that I've worked for, up the lions, big time awards, are things that oftentimes are three quarters the way there that you look at, that's not perfect yet. I wish I could change it. And I think that's true in all endeavors. Artists go back, they get a song they wrote and be like, I do so much better today than I did five years ago. That was a number one hit. It doesn't matter.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: So make sure the chain's right, but get things in the world. Ship.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: And you got ship stuff on a regular basis so you can learn and that you get better with each execution.

Charlie Grinnell: And shortening that feedback loop right? So it's like, get that stuff out there, get the feedback, reevaluate, get it back out there and kind of shorten that cycle because yeah, I've seen brands kind of sit there for a year. Wow, we just have to get it just right and then the world has changed. So they maybe started planning on how the world was based on doing this, this, and this and then by the time they're ready to go, they're like, oh, that's actually not true anymore. And you're like, what did you just do for the last year?

Brandon Rhoten: And you learn so much on the iterations it's unreal.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: I mean, we did not know how far we could push in social for Wendy's until we did.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: That's how we learned. We learned how far to push. So you have to put things in the world that you're confident ladder up to your bigger business objective and that's the trick.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. Super well said. I want to talk a little bit about the creative process. So we've kind of talked about not getting stuck on one specific medium, and start with an objective, understand your audience and then get creative. Can you just talk through your creative process? What are maybe some guiding principles for creativity? How should marketers approach this? Because oftentimes I've heard in the past from different folks, whether it can be hard to be creative or they maybe feel like their creativity is being stifled because they're being pushed a certain way because of some sort of insight. What's your take on that?

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah so I think creative works great in a box, I really do. I think you have to give parameters that created an expectation, not necessarily of a medium of output, which I think is the flaw in most briefs, most briefs say produce a 32nd TV ad or whatever it is, but more unlike intention, objective to solve four target that you're trying to associate with. So actually let me do this backwards if you don't mind.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: So when I look at a piece of creative, I have three things I ask myself. One is, will the target care? And implicit in that is you understand who you're actually targeting and I think that's absolutely critical because everything to everyone doesn't work. When I hear somebody say everybody with a wallet and a mouth is my customer at a restaurant. I vomit in my mouth. You can't do that. That's not how the world works.

Charlie Grinnell: Everyone is not your customer.

Brandon Rhoten: Everyone is never your customer, nothing ever applies to everyone ever. So I don't think that that works. Coca-Cola does not have everyone and they are gargantuan. That's how it works. So one is, will the target care? Also implicit in that as you understand what interests the target, not just who the target is, maybe demographically more psycho graphically is usually what we're more interested in, but what interests them? What peaks their interests, what grabs their attention? Which is really important. Creative job primarily, I think, is to grab attention first and then communicate something. So one will the target care?

The second question I have is does it build the brand? And that one's a little trickier, but really when you get down to it, you have defined what your brand is. So you're fundamentally saying, I choose to convey this to the world. So is this actually building up on that base I've decided? So if we said, go back to Wendy's, we said, we're going to challenge the industry to do better. That's who we are. We call that challenger with charm internally is what we call it. So we're going to challenge the industry to do better. And if we're doing that is what we're doing, challenging the industry to do better? Yes or no? And if the answer is no, then you don't do it so you've got to break down will the target care? Understand the target, understand what they care about, does it build a brand?

And the last thing is, what's the one thing? Because what they do in briefs, I think, all the time is they cram in say these 25 things. No. You got one thing you can let them walk away with so what is the critical thing they walk away with? In the context of building the brand, in the context of does the target care? So to me, if you can answer those three questions, if you can brief someone in a way that lets them understand what the one thing is that you need to communicate, who the target is and what they care about and what the brand is, so what we want to build upon for the brand and ideally the singular thing the brand's famous for, you're in really good shape and there's a million other ways to tackle this but to me that creates a nice little box. It creates this little scenario that says, I understand what I'm trying to communicate, who I'm trying to communicate to, what that person cares about and ultimately does it actually enhance someone's perception of a brand or does it detract from it?

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah, I think that's-

Brandon Rhoten: That's the way I always evaluate and think about creative.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense and there is probably, I don't have it off the top of my head, but I think there is a quote, some sort of famous quote out there where it's like, you need restraints to be creative. That's why it's actually creative.

Brandon Rhoten: I think it's a hundred percent true 'cause if you just say, if you tell somebody and omit one of those three things to me, so you omit just give them the one thing. Well, the one thing can be expressed in a million ways, to a million different groups. So I think those are the three constraints that need to be applied and the way I've always gotten to creative or the way I've consistently, not always, but gotten to creative, I'm really proud of and ultimately moves a brand and wins awards and all that stuff is the brief and the evaluation are the same thing.

So you create those constraints and then you compare it against the constraints and really important to understand all those elements so for example, will the target care? If we're trying to sell salads, Wendy's is the number two seller of salads in the world, Panera is number one, Wendy's is number two. If we're trying to sell salads, I am not the customer. I don't eat a lot of salads, so I need to know will the target care so I have to understand the target. I understand what they care about and I have to actually have empathy for that target and divorce my own views, whether the creative is good from whether the target will think the creative is compelling.

So it requires me to do all this mental gymnastics that are awesome to me, I think that's great, but are really hard and ultimately lead, I think, to much, much better work. So I would use those three questions, steal them all day long and potentially apply that to how you think about creative or creative development.

Charlie Grinnell: Absolutely, so if you're listening, steal those, I'm going to steal those.

Hey, it's Charlie here and I hope that you're enjoying the episode so far. If you are, I want to encourage you to check out the RightMetric Insight Library. It's a free library of data backed research that we've put together to help strategists, just like you build your digital strategy based on facts and not assumptions. It's full of strategy tear downs and examples from fast growing brands that have already helped thousands of marketers identify content opportunities, focus on the right white space channels, improve their media strategies and benchmark against competitors. So if you want to set up a free account, you can head to rightmetric.co/insightlibrary, or just look for a link in the show notes, wherever you're watching or listening to this. So with that, I want to thank you again for tuning in and I'll let you get back to the episode.

Charlie Grinnell: One thing you just said there that was spicy, which I think a lot of marketers fall into this trap is not being able to separate themselves or divorce themselves from their own personal opinion when making a decision for an audience or if an audience is going to like something. The amount of times that I've been in creative reviews with people are like, I love it, it looks great and I'm like, that's cool, you're not the target.

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah.

Charlie Grinnell: You know? Do you have any tips on how to, I guess it would be going back to that framework, but is that something that you've noticed in the past?

Brandon Rhoten: So I think that's why it's so important to define who the target is and what they care about before you actually look at any creative.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: It is a, I think, time in thing for marketers and you have to do this a million times before you get to the point where you can divorce yourself from your own opinions and apply the opinions of what you think the target will believe about. It's really, really hard and you got to be careful too. You can't say you're not the target, because that's such a cliche thing that just lets you dismiss everyone's opinion. So to me you have to first describe who the target is, what they care about and then reinforce if you get pushback, why the target will actually like the thing. If you have any testing that you can do, it helps prove that the target will care about the thing. And I give huge credit to go back to Wendy's, but really at any role.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah, yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: That when the CMO of Wendy's or CEO of Wendy's and I had think four or five CMOs and I had one CEO at Wendy's in my run there, when I would show them things and they didn't get it, they trusted me enough to know that my empathy actually was valid. Even if I wasn't the target, that if I believed in it, they were willing to give it a shot. That takes time and trust. You do a bunch of things before people really believe you, but that is a skillset for, I think, the executive level that is rare. So if you are a marketer and you find someone who's actually capable of doing that, hold on that person.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: Because it is rare that someone will accept that. Everyone starts with their own gut reaction to the thing and I think the people that can get around that and say, I actually know this about the target and the people presenting this to me, they believe in it for a reason so therefore I'm willing to take a bet on this thing and if you could do any testing that helps validate it, that is really, really helpful so oftentimes if I brought in something really controversial that I knew would get pushback, I would do just a little bit of testing that would say, hey, this is actually showing promise. So I think it will work and you know what? Because we're going to run it the way we're going to run it, the risk is low because I can always pull it after X weeks or X  or whatever this thing is.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. So basically I think the lesson is if you're going to come and have something controversial or provocative, come with some proof, come with some evidence.

Brandon Rhoten: And if you have a very emotional, non-empathetic group that you know you're pitching to, the more evidence, the better.

Charlie Grinnell: Yep, absolutely.

Brandon Rhoten: It might not come through. The reason most creative  is it dies in an organization. You kind of alluded that earlier, right?

Charlie Grinnell: Oh yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: Most creative that's good dies in the process before it gets out to the world.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: Now it's not saying all things should get out to the world. Bad creative comes out all the time that people are really excited about but yeah, that's a tough thing.

Charlie Grinnell: I definitely feel like there's a marketer's cartoon out there where it shows a piece of creative dying around a board room table because 25 people have their opinion but that's another talk show.

I want to talk a little bit about a post you did earlier this year where the kind of whole thesis of the post was no C-suite executives care about reach. How did you learn to speak the language of the C-suite? Specifically talking about maybe the value of social or various digital things. That, I think, is something. How do you... Playing translator is such an important part of being an effective marketing leader's job. How did you build that skill for yourself?

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah, I wouldn't say I'm always great at it, but I would tell you, I have never had an argument with a CFO or a CEO about a media metric related to marketing and the reason for that really boils down to, they have to understand how things ladder after the business objective and all the leading indicators, things like likes and impressions and follower accounts and reach and CPM efficiency of reach and click through rate and all that stuff, until you have solid correlations between those things and your outcomes, your business outcomes, nobody believes them.

And sometimes you have to fight previous assumptions. I mean, we talked about the transition to digital for some of the companies I've worked with. Oftentimes they had assumptions about GRPs equal sales, and that's not always true. It depends on the company and the problem they turn to solve. So when you get down to it, I have found you have to talk in terms of, this is how we're influencing the business objective and these are the correlations I have and the confidence in those correlations that tell me, my leading indicators are saying, I will impact those. And then you have to have duration of experience with someones that actually believe the correlations. But I mean, how I learned was rejection. That's how we all learn, right?

Charlie Grinnell: Touching the stove.

Brandon Rhoten: You go, that's right, you go and you pitch something and if you're in PR and you pitch media impressions, and someone says, every time someone comes up, it's like 10 million media impressions plus, and I don't see it in the business. I just don't see it in the numbers. Eventually you get to the point where it's like, nobody cares about that thing because they don't, they can't equate it to something that they're actually held accountable for. Your CEO is not held accountable to the follower account you have on Instagram, there's not. They're held accountable to something much bigger than that which you then are responsible to understand the connections between whatever it is you do on digital social and that outcome.

To me, reach is inconsequential for a C-level discussion. If you're pitching your C-level, you have to talk in terms of how you're going to achieve your business objectives and the confidence you have that the tactics you're taking and the leading indicators that you have will actually equate to that result. So I love to do things like pre-post  control studies. I love pre-post  controls which I was taught how to do by a brand manager, one named Liz Garrity at Wendy's because I was a digital guy. We didn't do stuff like that. So I mean, she showed me how to do it, I think in 2011 or something like that, where literally you look at lift of trend after stimulus is applied. You have a control market that then you apply stimulus to a market and then you leave the control  trend before, measure the trend during stimulus, measure the trend after stimulus.

And that's an old school marketing technique that works for every campaign ever as long as the scales are big enough that it will  has potential to impact the business. So when I have a client come to me and say, "I don't believe my marketing metrics, they keep coming saying, we're doing awesome because we're getting likes." I say, "Well, once you have a big effort, do a control group, do a  control and that will give you a great read." And you could put tools in place that give you that as a continuous read, things like marketing evolution does that. Things like Nielsen's studies, things like brand list studies, these other things that once you define your correlations to your business outcomes associated with your problems you're trying to solve, it gets much easier. It takes time though. Your average CMO, I think, spends 24 months or 18 months or something like that in market.

It probably takes you a year to get to the point where you really have any of those correlations. So you better run some shortcuts, to try to least prove it's working a pre-post  control.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah, and I have a feeling I know your answer to this next question, but how much of being an effective strategist, whether it's social, digital, just marketing in general, is about going with your gut versus informing your approach with data studies, best practices, insights, that sort of thing?

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah, so I think your gut gets better as you get older for different things.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: Your gut is pretty good on the small stuff when you're young and hungry because you are more connected to what is going to cause an immediate response.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: It's better on what's going to work over time. The more you actually have time in the world and the more you  things so for me anyways, I try not to make a decision based on my first gut reaction, but I note what it is.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: I note what it is so I can go back to it and say, yeah, this has been reinforced with enough data now that this is the right thing.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: When I deal with people who just want your gut reaction, they say "That's all that matters, Brandon and his gut." My response usually is, and this is a line that I probably stole from somebody, but I've used it so many times, I reserve the right to get smarter so as-

Charlie Grinnell: I like it.

Brandon Rhoten: …I come in, I reserve the right to get smarter here. So I start with the gut reaction, I note what it is and then I do a little digging just to say, hey, is this really... 'Cause again, you're not the target sometimes.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: Oftentimes. So you have to do a little homework to understand, is this real? Or is this not real. Frankly, I just think your gut for longer term things develops over time so you can make fast decisions on longer term things the more experience you have, but you got to have the wisdom to check yourself and make sure that you're not just jumping on something to jump on something.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah, there's a phrase that we use internally and it's this idea of informed intuition. Example, client X, maybe they've worked in as a marketer at a bank for 20 years and they came up before digital was a thing, but now they're kind of running digital, using research insights data to your point, reserve the right to get smarter. You need that balance of both but don't throw out the 20 years of knowledge that you have about the brand and the industry. It's just understand that maybe that approach of, hey, we've always done it this way, isn't necessarily going to work for the next 20 years.

And having that balance between art and science and I've found too, when I sat on the brand side where I'd maybe have a hunch about something, but you couldn't prove it and it probably didn't make sense to kind of blow the doors off the thing and go really hard at it but then we'd kind of get some research or whatever, some sort of study that came in that would really kind of highlight, oh damn, there's something here for us to go after and it was kind of like, how can we use that information to inform our intuition, to then make the best decision for the business?

Brandon Rhoten: I think you're totally right. It is informed gut is a great place to be and it's okay to note that initial response because there's value in that gut choice but I just think your percentages start to shift as you get older is what happens.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: I'm probably right 65, 70% of the time now. When I was in my 20s, I was probably right 40 or 50% of the  so that it just shifts and really it does change depending on the length of the thing and that sounds strange, but the more you're in, the more you understand how something plays out over time, because you've seen a hundred examples of it. So I actually trust my gut more on the does this have legs to last for years or weeks?

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: Than I do, does this last for weeks? I can't tell you what's going to be viral on TikTok tomorrow, but I can kind of tell you where video is headed across social. I've seen enough at this point that I kind understand where it's going so I just think your context changes over time and that's a good thing 'cause you work that variety in your decision making.

Charlie Grinnell: I just think about also it's like you've stood the plate so many times, you've had so many  where you're just like, you start to see patterns and you start to see things emerge and you start to make connections with things that maybe weren't, wouldn't be two connections in your brain two years ago but now, after seeing a few more things, you're like, oh that thing and that thing are actually connected.

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah. Agreed.

Charlie Grinnell: I want to kind of dive into examples of things that you're excited about. So is there any kind of social marketing from brands that has stood out to you in the first part of this year? Or maybe even last year? What have you seen recently where you're like, "Yo, that was sick."

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah. I mean, well there's all kinds of stuff and in fact I have a little trophy room behind me of things that I collect over time, like Liquid Death stuff and Red Bull's legendary Savannah Bananas, you don't know those guys? Oh my God, these guys are slaying it right now, just killing it.

Charlie Grinnell: Okay.

Brandon Rhoten: So I'll talk about some examples here in a second.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah, yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: But the biggest thing that's interesting to me is as a platform takes off and organic actually is meaningful in that digital social platform, things start really raw and then they get refined and produced as time goes on. So if you think about the current landscape, everybody talks about TikTok right now. TikTok's still pretty raw around the edges. You can-

Charlie Grinnell: Totally.

Brandon Rhoten: …maybe last a day than six months ago, but you can break through there relatively easily with some interesting ideas and some consistency. So if you put a hundred videos in, eventually you're going to break through right?

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: So I think that trend is really interesting. As a new platform emerges, as a new style of social or digital emerges, it tends to develop over time. I think streaming is happening, that's happening streaming right now.

Charlie Grinnell: Yep.

Brandon Rhoten: I mean, how many times a year ago did you sit there and watch Hulu and you see the same commercial eight times and you're like, "What the hell is going on? What is this person thinking?" Well, that's starting to get better and better and better. And marketers will figure it out. Figure out how to make it more produced and more interesting and  we're good,  roll's not good.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: That's the biggest kind of trend I'm seeing is that streaming, streaming as content, sit back content through park platforms is developing. Product integration is developing in amazing ways right now where companies like Bend are doing great work or kind of integrated products into their experiences and really the social platform is all about short form video right now. It's vine revisited, right?

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: That's happening right now and that's still real raw and real interesting so I think those are the media style channels of communication. But really when you get down to it, good brands are built on just being a little familiar and then a twist. Something that's different and weird and interesting and I'll use some examples here, so these guys, Savannah Bananas, and they've got a series that actually starts, I think this week on ESPN. This is a minor league baseball team that just made minor late baseball, fun. They are awesome.

Charlie Grinnell: I've never heard of them. I'm just Googling them right now.

Brandon Rhoten: Here it is right here. Jesse Cole, I got signed copy of Jesse's book. 'Cause I bought it off his website, he signs everybody's book. This is a dude who just decided baseball should be fun. We're going to make it fun and it is killing. The work he's doing is crazy. This place is sold out for a year in advance.

Charlie Grinnell: No way.

Brandon Rhoten: You've never heard of a minor league baseball team with season tickets that are sold out. It doesn't happen.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: He's just blowing it up so this is a crazy example, just finding an interesting way to break through in a commoditized space and you just have to remember what people are there for. That's the magic of being a good marketer. Remember why people show up in the first place and just leverage that if you can. You don't have to be outrageous. You don't have to be controversial. You don't have to be interesting. My consulting LLC is called Boring Kills Brands and the reason is because fundamentally you just have to know your target and what they care about and then figure out a way to leverage that in a beneficial way.

Charlie Grinnell: Yep.

Brandon Rhoten: So that's an example that I would point to that if you aren't following the Savanna Bananas right now, you need to. They are telling.

Charlie Grinnell: I'm definitely going to follow that.

Brandon Rhoten: And there's hundreds of examples, Liquid Death behind me, these guys, it's canned water for God's sake. They're selling for like 250 at Whole Foods but they're interesting in their approach. , this chip company, they release this, you know, can't eat it single chip in a tombstone packaging. That's three or four years old now, but they're doing this stuff all the time to grab people's attention.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: I think the root of really good branding is you figure out what your target wants and then how to actually do that in a way that's interesting. There's a little bit of nostalgia so it's familiar, but a twist that makes it kind of right down the line of what people care about.

Charlie Grinnell: Yep. Bingo. I completely agree. One of the things that you just said that I think back to, there's a book on my shelf behind me, it's called Hit Makers by Derek Thompson and it's basically the science of why things like the science of popularity and Derek Thompson, he's a writer at The Atlantic and he wrote this book and I read it and one of the things that you just described is actually a principle in the book called the Maya Principle, Most Advanced Yet Accessible and it talks about, you need to have that familiarity with a little bit of new. It needs to be new, but not too new and he gives examples of, I think it's like Spotify when they first released their platform, they had their four you kind of algorithm and they were testing it and it was doing really well but then they realized there was a bug that was serving up one or two old songs every once in a while.

So they're like, no, no, this is for you to find new music so they squash the bug and engagement went off a cliff. And so they were like, huh, you need to have that, so he gives a bunch of examples of that, whether it's the way Apple rolls out phones, so it's not always this crazy step change, it's just a little bit incrementally better and he gives a bunch of examples. But that whole principle, that Maya principle, is something that yeah, you're bang on in terms of what is it that is somewhat, it needs to be familiar, but has that new aspect, that's just enough for someone to go huh, that's interesting.

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah. And then new thing hopefully aligns directly with will it, the reason that the target cares in the first place, right?

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: That helps to reinforce the love of the brand connection and I'm sure I stole that from one of the awesome creatives I've dealt with, there's no way I made that up. He probably got it from that book, I have no idea. I know, when you boil it down, that just seems to be the root of most of this stuff that works well. It's got this touch in there that makes it feel like it's safe, but at the same time interesting and new and different.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. Absolutely.

Brandon Rhoten: So I think when you get down to it, there are a million samples. I hate it when I hear old school marketing guys talk about, or women or whatever, talk about how all marketing is horrible now, or it's all the golden days are gone. Garbage.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: There is so much great marketing in the world right now that it is astonishing. Out of home is better than it's ever been, billboards and stuff like that. 3D billboards are amazing now.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: Fact that you can pull that stuff off. The stuff happening in social. The fact that cosmetic brands have figured out an entire new life through TikTok is awesome and it's good stuff and there's always something new to emerge because the truth is this stuff takes time to develop and you got to test. You got to try.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: So I think the toolbox is bigger than it's ever been and it's more exciting to be in marketing than it's ever been and you just have to constantly try a little bit here, a little bit there, figure out what works and go back to what are you trying to build for your brand? And it also sort of works out.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah. Makes a ton of sense. I want to ask another question as we kind of start to wind down the episode here. How do you stay up to date on business or marketing? Who are you following? What are you reading? What are you listening to? And I'll give the context. So I do this on every episode. I dropped out of university. I went to university for a grand total of two months. I don't have a marketing degree. I learned a ton from reading, listening,  watching, talking to people, that sort of thing. So I always make sure to ask guests, how are you consuming information? Who do you look to?

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah, so I'm a big reader, so I read a lot of books. In fact, I wrote down Hit Makers after you said it. On planes, I read. Me as the fastest. On vacations, frankly, I read. I'll read three or four books on a vacation. I think, I mean, books obviously are a moment in time, they're a snapshot, but there's so much wisdom to pull out of good to great or find your why or dozens and dozens of other books that are just awesome. So I'm a big reader. I used to not be, is really a phenomenon in the last five or 10 years for me that I've become a big reader, but a big  and then I love consuming marketing. So every time I have a team, I have a monthly excellent ads meeting we call it, where literally everyone just brings forth the cool stuff they've seen.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: I pay attention to award shows so I look at Canne, I look at Addies, I look at all that stuff, not for the awards but to learn about what's actually getting attention and what marketers are talking about. I think marketing is a lot like fashion. If you look what works to win a Align, it's actually usually not what grows sales yet. It's like the cutting edge stuff that in two years will grow sales. I mean, I literally saw a campaign last week that looks just like a campaign we put out in 2011 for Wendy's that won an align. And that's awesome. That's great. That's how-

Charlie Grinnell: History repeats itself.

Brandon Rhoten: That's how it works, right and it's okay but I think when you get down to it, if you pay attention to that stuff, you're looking at the bleeding edge stuff. You're watching the fashion show runway, which isn't quite mainstream yet. And you pay attention to what people share, what peers share, that's the stuff that's becoming more mainstream and then you look at this stuff and that's the old school stuff.

Charlie Grinnell: Yeah.

Brandon Rhoten: That's the stuff that's established and worked and there's case studies on and all the other stuff so I think you need to really be a student of marketing, love brands, love, brand marketing, get excited to watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, but also everything else, so you pay attention. What is out there and working, and then go back to the classics to understand of the fundamentals and frankly why it works.

Charlie Grinnell: Totally. Well I feel like you and I could talk for hours about this stuff. My last question for you, I'm sure there's going to be people listening to this who would love to ask you questions. Where's the best place for people to get ahold of you online?

Brandon Rhoten: Yeah, probably LinkedIn. Look me up. R-H-O-T-E-N's my last name and there's not a whole lot of us so I think you can track me down pretty easy. Brandon Rohten, that's probably the best spot is LinkedIn. I do answer DMs when it's not just people trying to sell me stuff so if you plonk me a message on LinkedIn, odds are I'll reply.

Charlie Grinnell: Awesome. Well Brandon, thank you very much for the time. It was really great to have you on and we are definitely going to have you come back for an episode at some point in the future.

Brandon Rhoten: Appreciate that. Thanks Charlie.

Charlie Grinnell: For show notes, other episodes and more content, check out, rightmetric.co. If you enjoyed the show, please subscribe and leave a review wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening.

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