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Expert Q & A

Brandon Rhoten on Building Wendy’s Award-Winning Social Team and Transforming Fast Food Marketing

April 15, 2021
Mae Rice

We interviewed the Potbelly CMO and Wendy’s alum about Potbelly's pandemic advertising, the rise of Twitter and the role of brand positioning in social media marketing.

Table of Contents

“I love it when I can send a team to France to pick up a lion,” Brandon Rhoten told MarketerHire. “I want all my creatives to be famous.” 

Few CMOs don’t want that — but Rhoten, currently CMO of Potbelly, has lived the dream.

From 2011 to 2017, Rhoten architected Wendy’s digital and social media marketing, which has won a slew of advertising awards, including the Clio and, yes, the Cannes Lion

Wendy’s social also earned the company a less tangible honor: an Ellen spot in May of 2017, thanks to the viral phenomenon that was Nugget Boy. 

Legally, his name was Carter Wilkerson. He tweeted at Wendy’s one fine Wednesday, and asked how many retweets he needed to get for a year of free chicken nuggets.

The company account replied one minute later: “18 Million.”

Wilkerson’s ensuing call for RTs — “HELP ME PLEASE. A MAN NEEDS HIS NUGS” — went viral. Even today, it remains the most-retweeted English-language tweet of all time, with 3.3 million retweets. 

Though it didn’t reach the requested 18 million mark, Wilkerson still got his year of nugs, and a (tense) cameo on Ellen.

The segment delighted Rhoten for the same reason the Lion did. ”It means you're doing work that people are paying attention to,” he said. 

Coincidentally, Nugget Boy rose to glory during Rhoten’s last month at Wendy’s. A self-described “builder,” Rhoten gets bored when he doesn’t have new ground to break. 

So that spring, he headed to Papa John’s, where he helped launch the brick-and-mortar pizza chain into the e-commerce space with digital marketing, his first role as CMO. 

From there, he went to Potbelly, which he called “a master-class in consumer demand research and organizational transformation.” 

This week, he graduates — after nearly three years, he’s departing on Friday.

We sat down with Rhoten and took a look back at his epic career so far. It developed in lockstep with social platforms’ advertising capabilities, so we chatted about whether he knew Twitter would be big, as well as the key to a strong brand voice and Nugget Boy’s magical media moment. 

Marketing at Potbelly: Taking a Pro-Lunch Position

Let’s start by looking back on your time at Potbelly. What’s a marketing push you worked on that you’re really proud of?

Really, most of the work was behind the scenes — work on the menu, the experience and tech, things that helped set the brand up for success. Advertising can make people show up once, but only once; the experience has to win that second visit. Advertising doesn’t fix every problem. But we did have a few campaigns I'm very proud of. 

One of our early efforts was to hire a voice double for you. So when you have a conference call scheduled for lunch, that voice double sits in and says the garbage that you say in a corporation, like “I'll circle back to that” or “We need some synergies here.” That way, you could take a solid hour for lunch. 

Then we evolved that campaign into one where we worked with UberConference, which is a big teleconferencing platform. We had musicians like Jonathan Mann produce songs that played when people were waiting to join meetings during the lunch hour, essentially saying, “You guys should get lunch. You shouldn't be on this conference call right now.”

There are several examples like that, where we ran an effort and put a bit of media behind it — like when we reserved some parking spots for parents who wanted some pandemic alone time. It was all mainly intended to reinforce our position as the place to take a break for lunch. We generally don't run ads that are giant pictures of sandwiches with low prices. We’re not doing the five-dollar foot-long play.

Can you say a little more about that — the difference between Subway’s position and Potbelly’s?

Well, I would argue the majority of sandwich places have a simple position: We sell food. It's a commodity. Sometimes they focus on freshness, which is what Subway did back in the day. Sometimes they take a pure deal angle. Sometimes the focus is on distribution — Jimmy John’s is “freaky fast.”

But it’s about fulfilling a functional food need. There’s not a brand in the sandwich space, which is a pretty big space, that focuses on customer’s emotional needs: maybe they want to shut out the world and take a break for an hour, or walk away from lunch in a better mood. You don't want to eat in most Subways; it’s usually a gas station or something. But you want to spend time in a Potbelly. 

When you get down to it, Potbelly is the emotional brand play. You buy certain shoes because they're functional, and you buy certain shoes because they have a Nike swoosh on them and they make you feel athletic. I would argue Potbelly is more in that Nike direction. 

Marketing at Wendy's: A Challenger Brand Takes to Twitter

When you started at Wendy’s in 2011, was there a social media playbook for restaurant chains?

I don't know that there was necessarily a social playbook, especially for food. There were some brands doing interesting stuff; Denny's was active and all the big brands had established their accounts, but the posts were mostly informational — sort of like TV and radio ads from 50 years ago. Essentially, “Here's information and a logo.” 

That’s what social mostly was, even up to 2012. It was beauty shots of food and maybe a clever line of copy and a link, but there was no consistent brand. They weren’t doing anything that made them feel human, and there was a bit of a mentality that they shouldn’t be. 

How did Wendy’s update that? 

I think our team brought that human element to the table. They created a personality that made you actually want to have a relationship with this giant corporation on a social platform. 

(I designed and hired the team, and I’m very proud of the work they did, but I'm not the guy who did the tweeting.)

We got a lot of criticism for that when we first started doing it. People wrote articles about how a brand shouldn't do this, and brands shouldn't sound like this. But we approached social in a way that fit our position. Go back to 1984, when “Where’s the Beef?” was on television — we called out competitors and had attitude. 

In that ad, we’re saying, “This is a challenger brand.” It’s differentiated from McDonald’s. Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, said basically the same thing on TV for decades. 

Really, most brands’ positions are just there. You dig through the past to find what made you special back when you started, and sometimes tweak it for today’s consumer. 

As far as how you expressed that position — as a consumer, the Wendy’s Twitter was definitely the Wendy’s social presence I paid the most attention to. Internally, did you guys think of it as your flagship channel?

Yeah, we did. We identified pretty early on that our issue with people over 35 was differentiation on quality, and our issue with people under 35 was not being cool. So I ran hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TV ads in my time at Wendy's, but it was targeted to an older audience. It was talking about fresh, never-frozen beef.  

For a younger crowd, we used YouTube influencers and Twitter as our primary channels. And we were active on other platforms, but we started with where the audience was, and that younger audience was on Twitter at the time. It was a platform where you could be that challenger brand in real time, too. We could have conversations with other brands that were fluid on Twitter. We could interject and clap back. 

Totally! The platform fit the position. Wendy’s also has such a strong voice on Twitter — how do you think about brand voice? 

For a crash course in Twitter brand voice, there’s two brands I’d look to right now. One is SparkNotes — their Twitter is unreal. And Steak-umm’s Twitter is amazing.

I think first you need to establish the problem you need to solve. Most brands are on every social platform because they think they need to be. That’s garbage. Your problem might not be that you need to reach a group of people that spend time on a social platform.

So first, make sure social can solve a problem for you. Then, know your brand's position and play with expressing that position in such a way that people will actually react to it. 

The brands that do fun stuff on social just to do fun stuff — they’re much less interesting than the brands with clear positions. Sure, they might go viral every now and then, and kind of fall into a unique voice, but it's not intentional. The magic is in being intentional.

Marketing Operations: Weighing Paid vs. Organic, and Agility vs. Bureaucracy.

How do you think about the relationship between paid and organic social media? Like at Wendy's, when you had this big organic Twitter presence, did you also buy a lot of Twitter ads?

We did. And I would argue those two things go hand in hand, more so today than 10 years ago. You need to use media to fuel what’s working organically. That's how things go mega-viral and are seen by hundreds of millions. So we would boost andput our PR engine behind things that show a lot of promise. I mean, you don't get on an Ellen — like we did for #NugsforCarter — by accident. You get on Ellen because you have an infrastructure behind what you're doing as a brand that drives coverage and ultimately a connection with a celebrity like Ellen.

What sort of infrastructure helped you elevate that Twitter conversation to Ellen?

You have to create the conditions inside your organization that allow for those moments to happen. You know, one of the things that was really important to Wendy's, that they still do today, is they're willing to jump on things that are happening in real time. They’re willing to be agile and take risks. And that's hard. 

At a lot of companies, you have a content calendar and a media schedule and all these things that are planned out months in advance and agencies that are booked — deals that are negotiated up-front, based on volume. There's no budget for a last-minute idea. But when you have a moment and you ignore that moment, you only get what you buy. You never get that earned thing that goes above and beyond, because it was actually relevant to people.

When brands jump on something like that, I always wonder — how do you retain your agility and at the same time make sure some junior creative doesn't do something crazy?

Rules allow for agility. Generally what we do is we define the brand’s personality, and then we hire people that sound like the personality, because they’re just themselves as the brand and it works. But you do give them rules. So for example, if anybody on the team was going to do something that gave him that twinge of “Should I do that?”, they had to send me a text. It could be at 10 p.m  It happened all the time. I would reply back within 20 seconds and say “Yes” or “Here’s my edit.”

Brands can’t be successful if they put social posts through a ridiculous three or four day legal process. You need an organization willing to accept the occasional mistake.

Food and Social Media Marketing: An Evolving Relationship

You’ve worked for Wendy’s, Papa John’s and Potbelly’s — what drew you to digital marketing for national food chains?

My dad was in restaurants, so I grew up washing dishes, but I never really thought I would have a career with restaurants. I actually started on the agency side, doing a lot of tech and B2B stuff, and I was pulled into restaurants because back in the early 2010s, a lot of restaurants weren’t good at digital/social — and tech was. Dell was doing great stuff, and some of our clients were really strong.

Restaurants tend to be just a little bit behind everybody else in terms of the adoption curve for marketing. The stuff that tech companies had been doing for five or 10 years — performance marketing, digital and social — restaurants are just getting their feet wet. So Wendy's pulled me in to start the digital practice there. I’m media agnostic, but I tend to start with digital. 

Your marketing career started before Twitter was invented. When you first saw Twitter, did you sense it would be big? I remember no one even knew what to call it back then — people were saying it was “The YouTube of 2007.”

I had no idea. Twitter felt so simple. It was hard to wrap your head around. How could this be a news source? I remember sitting around with clients of ours at Gyro, setting up their personal and business Twitter accounts, and every single time they’d give me this look like, "Why would I use this?” But that's how every breakthrough technology is.

So I didn't know it would take off, but I thought, maybe it’s opening up the ability for smaller companies to communicate at scale. That was exciting to me. Smaller brands have to be scrappy and jump on these new technologies quickly, because that's where you can outpace the bigger companies: when the platform is still cheap, and when organic still matters. Once platforms monetize, it's much harder for smaller brands that aren't spending tens of million dollars a year to actually break through.

At this point, it feels like Snack Twitter has kind of become its own subculture — a lot of food-related brands, not just Wendy’s, have invested in funny Twitter presences. Why do you think food and humor go together in a way, say, luxury handbags and humor don’t?

I think food — especially snacks, fast food, casual sit-down restaurants — is about fun, right? It’s about community. You go to a restaurant to spend time with people. When you have a bag of Doritos in your lap and someone sits down next to you, chances are their hand’s going in that bag. When you say, I’m getting pancakes at this joint down the street, somebody is going to go with you. There's this community atmosphere around food, and social platforms lend themselves to the kind of conversation you'd have sitting around a table at a restaurant with friends or family. Social media and food are a really clean fit. 

This interview has been condensed and edited. 


Mae Rice
about the author

Mae Rice is senior editor at MarketerHire. A long-time content marketer, she enjoys interviewing marketing experts and learning about the weird and wonderful feedback loops that connect marketing and culture. She also loves any ad that makes her say "Huh?!" — especially Tim and Eric's ad for Totino's pizza rolls, which she watches way more often than you would think.

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