Famous rolls, authentic bakers, millennials and a turn with stardom. How Jill Thomas, Vice President of Global Marketing, guides Cinnabon® on a clear path to growth.

Jill_Thomas_logo_quote“If I’m lucky, in a month from now, best case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha,”
Bob Odenkirk’s character laments at the end of the blockbuster AMC series ‘Breaking Bad.’ When the scene opens in the prequel ‘Better Call Saul,’ we see Odenkirk as a bakery manager in Omaha preparing the internationally famous cinnamon rolls. How did this happen, how did the brand get there and how does the ubiquitous brand in every travel plaza and mall grow from here? CMO Outlook sat with Jill Thomas to discuss all aspects of the brand as famous for its aroma as it is for its signature cinnamon rolls.

CMOO: I already know the answer to this, but what is the Cinnabon media budget?

JT: “We don’t spend a single dollar on media,” says Jill Thomas Vice President, Global Marketing for Cinnabon. Cinnabon marketing is about driving intention not “getting attention.” At other companies I’ve worked, everyone wanted to be in charge of the brands with the biggest budgets because the prevailing thought is, you can buy your way into hearts and minds and impact sales. And there’s some truth to that. But my experience with Cinnabon is different in that we are in high traffic areas where we can literally get millions of impressions daily from potential customers who see our locations and even more because our proprietary Makara® cinnamon creates the aroma that you can smell even now. So the platform is set to engage with customers who’ve grown up with us as well as attracting the coveted millennials exposed to the brand through our licensing in various arenas.”

CMOO: So how did Cinnabon get tied to Breaking Bad and Bob Odenkirk’s character?

JT: “That was totally organic. We had no idea we were getting written into the show and the now famous line about managing a Cinnabon in Omaha is part of the Cinnabon conversation. Within a few minutes of the series finale of Breaking Bad, our fantastic PR team picked up on this line and partnered with our social agency who tweeted out a job application to @mrbobodenkirk! The creators of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul tell the story that once they saw that, they thought… wow, this was supposed to be just a one-liner but what if Saul really does work in a Cinnabon. Deb Rowley, a senior leader on the brand who also happens to be our original Bakery Manager went to the set and trained Bob. He is very proud of the fact that he actually knows how to make our world-famous rolls and has told the story many times in interviews. The tie in with the show has exposed us to a millions of new millennial fans.”

CMOO: So how does the brand stay authentic?

JT: “We stay true to our authentic voice. We were voted one of the 25 funniest brands on Twitter. You don’t earn that by phoning it in and not really understanding your brand voice. We were recognized as one of millennials top five favorite QSR brands so clearly our brand voice resonates with millennials. Many brands have tried and may come off as forced or not really believable. We are proud of our brand and everything it stands for.”

CMOO: So with such a high presence in malls and travel plazas you must have a diverse franchisee base.

JT: “Yes, Pilot is one of our largest franchisees with other institutional franchisees that operate non traditional locations like airport and travel center bakeries. The heart and soul of Cinnabon are our mall bakeries which are primarily owned by single unit operators. We have to balance the needs of all in our system but our mall based bakeries and franchisees are all hungry for growth so we are helping them get there. We have a strong advisory council led by Greg Komen who is the founder of Cinnabon (Brand was founded by Greg and his Father) as our Franchisee Advisory Council (FAC) President. So you can believe there are passionate members on our FAC.”

Some photos of the new Cinnabon store design in the North Point Mall Alpharetta, Georgia

Photos of the new Cinnabon bakery concept in the North Point Mall Alpharetta, Georgia

CMOO: Why do you think the brand has endured and what are you doing to foster growth?

JT: “Great question and I get asked that a lot. First of all, the product is irresistible and has remained true to its original recipe and the three product attributes that make the perfect cinnamon roll 1. Proprietary Makara® Cinnamon 2. Signature Cream Cheese 3. Sweet dough. That’s the core. Without that we wouldn’t be here. The second is the licensing and brand extensions that bring our flavors to retail and introduce us to new audiences, such as our partnerships with Pillsbury®, International Delight®, Keurig®, Pinnacle® and Taco Bell® with Cinnabon Delights®, to name a few. In addition, our continued exposure on television and in movies, such as the recent film ‘Daddy’s Home,’ allows people to experience the brand without ever stepping foot into an actual Cinnabon bakery.”

CMOO: What do you focus on with your team and how do you drive the brand forward?

JT: “The most important thing I can focus on is to make sure I build the best team possible. I followed some great marketing executives here that I’ve worked with in the past and who I really respect, including Cinnabon Brand President Joe Guith whom I worked with at Yum!. At Cinnabon, I have a small, extremely talented team and work with great partners who stay focused. So the culture is exceptionally strong and supportive. I have to keep an eye on my team because they are so passionate I worry they’ll get burned out…so I often preach balance. With such a small team I tell them ‘it’s ok to say no if there is a more important yes,’ which helps these young leaders prioritize and gives them a little control over their workload.”

CMOO: What does the future hold for you at Cinnabon?

JT: “We just revealed our new branded store in Atlanta. The new bakery design is meant to look like an authentic bakery. We’ve contemporized our logo which hasn’t been altered in nearly sixteen years. And the menu continues to evolve. So new things are happening all the time. I’ve spent over 20 years of my career in marketing and 15 of those years in foodservice at world-class brands. I put Cinnabon at the top of that list which I am very proud of. If I can help our team stay focused on building our three pillars…contemporizing the brand through creative expression, second, innovating the menu to adapt to the changing needs of our guests and third, communicating digitally…I’ll consider that success. The foundation of Cinnabon is authentic bakeries and so the voice of the brand has to be authentic as well. But the bottom line is, our franchisees want growth and I want to give it to them. My team is made of good savvy brand people who know where the path is…that path is authenticity.”

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