Pei Wei CMO Brandon Solano purports that his marketing cred has earned him the right to wear what he wants and say what he pleases. He’s right.
— Lauren McCutcheon
Brandon Solano has been at the forefront of offbeat, brand-forward food innovation since he convinced his former bosses at The Hershey Company to release something called the Elvis Cup.
As chief marketing officer of Pei Wei, Solano continues to subvert traditional tenets about messaging, image, and even ingredients, pushing boundaries to bring value to his mission for transparency and success, which he has named “the Wei Forward.”
Brandon Solano is one of the executives featured on Skift Table’s Top Restaurant Marketers 2019, our new franchise focused on the top marketing leaders in the restaurant industry.
Skift Table: Let’s start at the beginning.
Brandon Solano: I grew up in Flint, Michigan, the only child in a single-parent home, in a house that was worth $40,000. It was a pretty quiet childhood and a grounded upbringing. I scholarshipped my way out of there through graduate school for business.
Skift Table: Take us through your career so far.
Solano: I began as a marketing director for gum and mint at Hershey. Do you remember Ice Breakers? Ice Cubes? That was me. I then moved on to Reese’s, where I invented the largest limited-time offer in the history of the company, the Elvis Cup. It has banana fondant inside, and was king-size. I tried to convince the company to ship Reese’s right off the line, direct to the customer, and charge twice the price. You haven’t tasted a Reese’s until you’ve had one right off the line. But they wouldn’t do it.
From there, I’ve been part of seven or eight brand turnarounds. Domino’s was a big one. Before I joined Wendy’s, they hadn’t had positive traffic in 10 years.
[Editor’s note: When reached for comment, a Wendy’s spokesperson indicated that the company wouldn’t attribute the timing of business results or momentum in traffic to one person.]
Skift Table: What’s your formula for a successful turnaround?
Solano: First, you have to have the goods. Wendy’s can do what they do, and say what they say, because they have pretty fresh food.
At Domino’s, we put creative out there that said: ‘Our pizza sucked, and now it’s better.’ It worked.
At Pei Wei, we don’t have the media budget to get the broad awareness that we had in my days at Wendy’s and Domino’s. But we have the goods. We took on Panda Express in a really meaningful way this year, and it was fun as hell.
Skift Table: How? I mean, Panda Express has about 2,000 stores. Pei Wei has closer to 200.
Solano: First, we had to self-assess. We did a game theory exercise. We made a list of all the things [Panda Express] could criticize us about, and said, ‘Let’s clean those things up.’ We took a look internally and said, ‘It’s not good enough, guys.’
We wanted to be the very best in the fast casual space, and we were honest about our shortcomings, so we went and fixed them.
Skift Table: That seems like a big job for a marketer. How did you do it?
Solano: We restructured our menu. We used to lay out our build-your-own-bowl menu by focusing on the sauces first. We decided we would focus first on proteins: grass-fed flank steak, white meat chicken. From there, you can order white rice or brown rice, fried noodles, quinoa, heritage mixed greens, lettuce cups or cauliflower rice, which we just launched.
We’re the first major national fast-casual restaurant that I’m aware of to offer cauliflower rice, which opens us up to our core customer: younger, more affluent, more likely female.
But we still have Mongolian beef and Kung Pao chicken. Consumers aren’t all on a diet, and they’re not all hedonistic. They mix and match, sometimes on the same plate.
Skift Table: From there, you went after Panda Express?
Solano: We hired a private investigator to find out what was in their food. We then posted a word search to find MSG.
We also petitioned the FDA last year for menu transparency, to require restaurants to disclose ingredients in their menu. This was our way of making a difference by informing consumers.
Skift Table: That’s admirable, but it kind of contradicts the reputation you’ve built on social media, especially Twitter.
Solano: I was leading Wendy’s marketing when we created the Twitter campaign you’re referring to. We envisioned Wendy as a little red-headed girl, as sweet as can be, with freckles and a smile on her face—and she’s a total bitch on the internet. The senior executives, they didn’t get it, but they also didn’t care. They didn’t use Twitter. They didn’t know. So, we got away with it, and the press started paying attention.
But, again, we had the goods.
When I got to Pei Wei, we had a corporate Twitter account only, that tweeted out deals only. It was boring. If it’s a deal site, it’s a deal site; it’s transactional, and you provide nothing but subsidy to your customer. But if you can build an authentic experience…
We started a Pei Wei Tiger account so we could say whatever we wanted. Everybody advised me not to. But I did it, and we play the corporate account and the Tiger account off each other all the time.
On April 20 (4/20), Tiger was wearing a tie-dye shirt and some John Lennon sunglasses and said something like, ‘Hey, try our bowls.’ Then, from our corporate account, we tweeted, ‘Lynn from HR wants you to report to her office for catnip testing.’
We’re a little subversive within our own company. Our followers love that and engage with that. The trick is to be clever, not mean.
You also have to be committed to social media with a strategy. You can’t have an Instagram account that you update once a month.
Skift Table: You’re also a non-conformist when it comes to your own image.
Solano: There was a time I tried hard to fit in, in the corporate space. There were times when being dressed like a businessperson made me feel important. I made it to the c-suite.
But today, I’m wearing jeans with a hole in them and a t-shirt with a mouse on it, with Slowpoke Rodriguez, who is friends with Speedy Gonzales. [Editor’s note: The mice are cousins.]
I like petitioning the FDA and being first with cauliflower rice and trolling the shit out of Panda, who I think is bad for America. Maybe they’ll go out of business because of us. Or maybe, they’ll get better.
I’m a little bit of a malcontent, for sure. I always say they gave a graduate business education to the wrong guy. I tried to fit in for a while, and it was fine. Then I invented the four-for-four meal deal at Wendy’s. With the track record that I have, I can be my true self at work, and somebody will still employ me.
Read More: Skift Table’s Top Restaurant Marketers 2019
Lauren McCutcheon is a writer and editor who specializes in features writing. Her work has appeared in The Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, Domino, Philadelphia magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray, Better Homes & Gardens and more. Her day job is content manager for Visit Philadelphia. Connect with her via LinkedIn.
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