Rob Crews on What it Takes to Become CMO of a Major Brand Like Church’s Chicken

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Brand and restaurant marketers. Rob reveals what it takes to climb the ladder of a large brand and gives details on exactly what it takes to land those big interviews. Very fun episode full of great insights on marketing and personal growth.

Resources from this interview


[00:00:01] Recording: Welcome to the Ignite Podcast where we help marketers and CEOs learn the latest tips and tricks to help ignite growth in their business. This isn’t your typical marketing podcast, we push beyond platitudes to deliver you real-world stories from the trenches. Are you ready to learn? Are you ready to grow? Are you ready to have fun? Well, then buckle up because you are about to enter the Ignite Podcast.

[00:00:32] Alex Membrillo: Hey everybody, really pumped to have you guys listening today, we are in for a treat. We’ve got Rob Crews on the line with us today. This guy is incredible, he’s run international marketing for a little known restaurant called Wendy’s, you might have heard of, as well as he’s been the CMO of Church’s Chicken, and the CMO of Ovation Brands. Now he’s running a super bad-ass consulting group focused on retail, digital and technology. Rob, I don’t want to steal your thunder because you have such an awesome background. Give us a little 90-second preview of where you’ve been and what you’re doing now.

[00:01:04] Rob Crews: Yes. Well, thanks Alex. I appreciate that and boy, I think you’re going to be hard to top. My background, as you mentioned, is primarily in restaurant marketing. I was fortunate years ago after starting in bank marketing and then spending some time in the ad agency business, I stumbled in to the restaurant business, a very small chain at the time, little less than 200 units, it was called Applebee’s. I just happened to get there kind of the right time and as the thing really exploded and we grew up to over 800 units in the few years that I was there.

I went on to work for Arby’s, worked for– run marketing at a company called Rare Hospitality, which is now part of Darden, but oversaw marketing for LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille. I’ve worked for Sonny’s BBQ, and I’ve worked for The Grill on the Alley, and the Daily Grill out in LA, and worked in the golf business for about three years for the largest golf management company. That was a phenomenal experience, got to do a lot of cool things there.

In my consulting practice, I was hired by an agency in New York back in ’09 to actually pitch the Wendy’s business. We won that business and they subsequently had the account, I think for about five years or so. Was a lot of fun to work on. Then more recently, as you mentioned, I’ve got to run international marketing for Wendy’s of 450 restaurants in 26 countries around the world doing a lot of menu development and best practices stuff. Went on at Church’s Chicken, was able to really grow ibid there rather quickly from $32.5 million prior to my arrival to $43.5 two years later. Still a pretty good number for those guys.

Then I went to Ryan’s Steakhouse and Old Country Buffet. That was Ovation Brands and really in a year, position the company for sale and allowed the owners to monetize and exit the business at a really great rate. Kind of brings me to today, I’ve been working with a lot of technology firms and restaurant companies as well, helping them brand and market. It’s what I do.

[00:03:14] Alex: I love it, Rob. Wow, you love working with apostrophe S restaurant groups, Sonny’s, Applebee’s, Arby’s, Church’s, Wendy’s, everything apostrophe S. I’m digging it. We’ve got a lot of marketers listening on the line here and a lot of them are hoping to one day become CMO of a big brand. You’ve been the CMO of a bunch of big brands. How do you rise to that level? How can we teach some of these marketers that are in mid-level management roles to take the next step up? How did you do it?

[00:03:44] Rob:  Well, I think that’s a great question, Alex. I think first and foremost, you have to have passion for what you do, right? That’s what gets you out of bed every day, it’s not the money. Lord knows, I can tell you, the money isn’t that great in marketing, but you do what I’ve always felt like marketing is a calling and you just really couldn’t see yourself doing anything else. That’s number one.

Number two is always with that, you’ve got to get results and you have to be able to measure those results. I’ve been fortunate that way through my career where– The great thing about the restaurant space is you tend to get that feedback pretty quickly. I can tell you back in the day, you’d run a TV commercial, you’d start on Monday, and you’d know by Thursday whether or not you were bending the trend and the same as your sales, but it’s important that you know that you’re able to measure it and be able to say, “I did X and I got Y.” I think for a lot of folks, it’s really understand how to get results.

Then also, at the end of the day, you got to be a marketer. To me, that’s about solving problems and it’s really understanding your target audience, what’s important to them, and then ultimately, how am I going to deliver a product that resonates with them? I get that message from them. It moves way beyond where a lot of folks get stuck, I think, in marketing is that they’re phenomenal project managers but they don’t really know how to do the problem-solving, the real marketing portion of it. That, in my eyes, to really be successful and move up, you have to be able to combine those skills.

[00:05:27] Alex: Yes. What I heard there is you’ve got to really live and breathe marketing because we don’t get paid well enough.


FYI marketers, you’re not going to get rich, so it’s got to be a calling, but then you also need to be creative in your approach to solve some of the more complex problems and then you have to follow that up with understanding your KPIs and results. Rob, when you’re applying to become– well, I assume you didn’t go from manager to CMO, right? There’s probably steps there, but when you’re applying for the next level up and you go in for that interview, are you going there and saying, “Hey listen, we think we can increase same-store comps by 3.5 and these are the tactics we’re going to do it.” Should our marketers be going in there with that kind of focus on return on investment for the brand they’re going to?

[00:06:12] Rob: Well, I think they should have that kind of focus. I would caution certainly in an interview, it’s hard to know enough beforehand, particularly on a non-public company, right? Because there’s all sorts of nuances. When I went to Ovation Brands, it was really about, “We need to get this company sold.” That lends itself to some tactics because of the outcome that we wanted in the time frame that we wanted that you wouldn’t do in other situations.

You have to be careful not to presume to know too much, but I think the important thing is to be able to say, “Hey, where you’ve been? What was the situation faced?” It’s kind of folks will talk about that classic star interview technique. What was the situation? What were the tactics that you did? Then what were the actions and results you got? I think if you can talk through that, particularly, if you’re interviewing with a marketer, they ought to be able– they’ll follow that line of reasoning and either say, “Hey, I like the way you approached that,” or maybe, “Well, that was pedestrian and maybe you just got lucky rather than being good.”

[00:07:28] Alex: [laughs] Sure.

[00:07:29] Rob: Truly, that’s the way the approach is in terms of what have you done? Every day when you’re showing up at work think about the problems you’re solving and every so often, take a step back and say, “You know what? Here’s the situation we were in, here’s what I did, here’s the results we got.” You got to keep track of that stuff.

[00:07:48] Alex: Yes, that’s huge and put it all over your LinkedIn just like you’ve done. Guys, if you want a lesson in how to create a LinkedIn profile, find /robcrews and you’re going to see how to create a LinkedIn profile. Everything is quantitative, every result that he’s gotten, and that’s what I preach all the time. Okay, it sounds like you’re running a lot of traditional media at Church’s or you’re running any digital at Church’s, Ovation Brands, are there any tips you can give our QSR or restaurant marketers out there on what works?

[00:08:16] Rob: Yes. Well, that’s a great question. I think there’s– I’m going to draw a blank on the guy, Scott– Forget his name. He wrote a book called Hacking Marketing. You guys should look it up and really, he’s got a model in there I like a lot where he talks about modern marketing as being living at the intersection of a Venn diagram between message being one circle, media being another, which is– That’s really what historically what marketing’s been, but then he’s got a third circle there on the bottom he calls mechanics and it’s sort of building that infrastructure.

Particularly I think in these restaurants companies that’s been some of the challenge and particularly for existing management to really understand, “Well hey, you know what? I need to have a kind of a location management solution in place.” Because I can do all the great advertising and build brand awareness but if somebody says, “Hey Siri, where’s the closest chicken restaurant?” There’s a Church’s on the corner but the pin’s dropping a half mile away on the other side of the street, you’ve just lost that battle.

That’s why I like that Venn diagram model around, “Well, how do I make sure even up front– probably the first thing I’m going to do is make sure I’ve got that sort of, well, think of it as like a bottom of the funnel, the conversion process cover. Once I start pumping people in, I don’t have a leaky bucket situation where people were going out. At Church’s then, what we built was– at the time and this was back in 2013, I called it a delivery agnostic couponing system.

The whole point of this was really what we had been doing. Some of my predecessors had been running ad campaigns against current customers. I said, “You know what? We need to move from paid to owned. If I want to tell my existing customers about a new promotion, why should I be paying a third party a premium for communicating with that customer? Let’s start building, in essence, a database so that we can get the cost of an incremental communication as close to zero as possible.”

I think today on a text, it probably cost you around seven-tenths of a penny. I bet you emails’ a little less than that, so we started with that kind of starting to build an email database, a text database, built out a mobile app to take into a test market who has– what we were really playing with when I left. At Ovation Brands now, when I got there, we had an email database with of 1.4 million names. We grew that by a couple hundred thousand names while I was there. I do think, and this is where the brick and mortar, us guys in restaurant companies kind of have an advantage in a lot of ways, because we have so many guests running through the doors every day.

You got to be doing stuff in restaurant just to get people into that database. You got a drive-through, you need to put something up there. A sign-up in the club, whatever. I’m a big believer in surprise and delight. I don’t particularly like points programs because really those points become cash, if you will. It’s a liability you need to put on the balance sheet, which a lot of companies don’t do quite frankly, but people will give you the information, keep track, and if you do it right, you surprise and delight them, they’re happy as can be as a loyal customer and being rewarded.

[00:12:15] Alex: Yes. I want to mention, I want to go back to the first point you made there. The leaky bucket analogy is perfect. You start at the bottom of the funnel, we make sure that we’re covered there when someone’s trying to find you that were present, so location management. There’s tools out there like EX and things like that, that can make sure that your name, address, phone number is showing up correctly, but then you also, I assume, would want good reviews to be showing up there as well. You were running some of those programs through all these emails you were getting or just making sure that the review quality was good, right?

[00:12:48] Rob: Yes, there’s times I’ve actually run very discreet programs against that, in particular at Ovation Brands. We put some resources against really increasing our online ratings. Now here’s the funny thing, the motivation was less about for other customers and stuff to see and more about potential buyers coming in to buy the company, because really, we knew any private equity firm that was coming in to buy us would have 20 something MBA or MBA team and what’s the first thing they’re going to do? Well, they’re going to search the web, you can see what kind of information pops up.

We really ran a campaign to get people, inviting them to leave a review. In about six weeks, we tripled the amount of reviews we had garnered in the prior six months. Of course, the vast majority of those were positives, we were asking and so we upped that online sort of arbitrary top-line ranking, if you will, but also took a lot of the more, let’s call them egregious ad reviews and pushed them off the page. It was very successful and actually in a relatively low investment to do that.

[00:14:13] Alex: Yes, absolutely. Get those negative Nancies out of there. There’s a lot of this review systems now, they work really well. They send out an email to these potential customers, they’ll later review it and it’s gated, so if they say they would not recommend the restaurant, then it goes to an internal feedback system. If they say they would recommend the restaurant, it goes directly to that URL, Google Yelp, whatever you may want.

[00:14:35] Rob: Very cool.

[00:14:36] Alex: Yes, it’s cool and [chuckles] all of this ability to gain the system, I wonder how long we’re going to have where reviews are such an important part. I think we’re going to need other third party validation here in the coming years. I don’t know what that’s going to look like, if it’s going to be video testimonials or Facebook will incorporate some kind of like, “Your friend’s been to Church’s and here’s what she had to say.” I wonder what it’s going to be. Okay, so I won’t pontificate too much on the future, so–

[00:15:02] Rob: [laughs] [crosstalk] You’re right though.

[00:15:04] Alex: My fiancee tells me all the time, “Alex, stop talking what’s going to happen in 20 years, dude.” [laughs] She’s so tired of it.

[00:15:09] Rob: No. Again, that’s why it’s a calling. That’s why you do what you do.

[00:15:13] Alex: Yes, we’re having fun. We’re running a lot of restaurant marketing and fixing a leaking bucket is paramount and so now, you’ve ventured out from working for the man and you’ve started your consulting agency. Tell us a little bit about who your working with and what kind of projects you really enjoy.

[00:15:29] Rob: Yes. Well, one of my clients is Premier Restaurant Group. It’s actually my former boss and CEO from Ovation Brands. He’s out, he’s bought a couple of concepts. One is called Forever Yogurt out in Chicago, the other is a fast– not a fast casual, it’s a casual dining, better burger– the original better burger restaurant called Cheeburger Cheeburger out of Fort Myers, Florida. Really, with them, I’m in the process of really remaking the Cheeburger brand and bringing it up, making it much more contemporary. We’re looking to build out a fast casual prototype, we’re getting our service times down, we’re offering in addition to the milkshakes they’ve always been known for, we’re bringing in smoothies, that type of thing. A lot of the work I’m doing with them is really kind of brand transformation type work and around the menu right now in particular.

Then I have another client doing the work with really great guys, a company called West Hill Global. They’re an insurance technology startup. You can think of them as like a thumbtack for the insurance industry but they’re building out a whole technology ecosystem that’s going to make it much simpler for people when they have an insurance claim on their home to basically get that appraised, and then checks cut, the money sent to the suppliers– finding the right suppliers to work on your house to get it fixed. We’re doing a lot of cool CRM work from them right now and we’re enjoying that a lot.

[00:17:13] Alex: Yes, that’s interesting. You have all this restaurant experience and now you’re working with carriers, and insurance providers, and all that kind of fun stuff, is this like a super interesting challenge? It’s very different than what you’ve been used to, right?

[00:17:24] Rob: It is, but you know, I always look at– again, I come back marketing as problem solution. I think it’s the same way with agencies. When I sat in a CMO chair and I’m looking at agencies, I never really, “Well, that’s a consumer agency or that’s a B2B agency.” It’s just, who’s target audience? What’s important to them and then how do you really line up back to your–? What’s your message? What’s your media? What are your mechanics?

I truly think in that case that it’s just a question of, if you’re a talented marketing person you find ways to solve problems. I’m pretty analytical guy, the CRM stuff I’m doing. Just this morning, I ran an ABC test and I was actually, with this, I had a big enough sample size and I ran tests in three different tag lines or subject lines just to see what’s going to resonate and get open with these contractors as we’re looking to build. I just love doing that. The work’s never done, so next time we go out to do something, it’s just going to be a test and learn, test and learn.

[00:18:41] Alex: Yes, absolutely. Message media mechanics, that book Scott Brinker, right?

[00:18:46] Rob: Yes, thank you.

[00:18:47] Alex: Hacking Marketing, Scott Brinker, okay. All right guys, get it on Amazon. I can see you can get them for about 19 bucks. Rob highly recommends it. Message media mechanics. Doesn’t matter if you’re working with a restaurant group or helping insurance carries, either way it comes down to the same basics. Rob, I love those insights.

Cheeburger, we have a lot of Atlanta fans, because I’m from Atlanta and I think some of my friends listen to this and Cheeburger was there in Johns Creek and they have this 20 ounce burger. I didn’t know that they actually started out of Fort Myers. Okay, so we’re doing menu work there and then decreasing service times. How do you do that last part? How do you decrease service times? Is that you hire an operational type person and they oversee, it’s a better store management?

[00:19:31] Rob: I’ll give away a little bit of the secret sauce but Cheeburger has been in that really big, thick, juicy, burger type thing. One of the ways we’re looking at that is taking smaller patties, making those thinner on the grill, cooking them a little higher temp so they cook up in about 90 seconds. You get that bark on the outside, get a little bit of bit in it.

Then stackables. Internally, we talk about them, they’re stackables and then you start stacking those patties. Really if you want a full pounder, you put four of those patties on there and go to it.

This is a true story man. When I was at Wendy’s, I was in New Zealand and we opened up a new restaurant and someone had come in just a little before we got there and had ordered a seven quarter pound patties stacked up on a bun. I did not get to see that actually but I do understand he ate it. He was a rather large gentleman and that’s a great thing about doing stackables. It’s modular and you can get them out of the door much quicker than if you take a full 20-ounce patty. You have to cook that at a much lower temperature so that you’re cooking it very well and that type of thing.

[00:21:00] Alex: Yes, that’s definitely operations. If he wasn’t large before he ate at seven quarter pound stack, he will be after. [laughs]

[00:21:09] Rob: There’s a reason those boys are some of the best rugby players in the world, I guess.

[00:21:14] Alex: Yes, that’s right, down under. All right, very cool. Now, we’re running our own shop. Tell us, you were in the dark side, working client side and you went over– you started your own shop, running your own thing, CEO of your own consulting firm, what does it take for those that are trying to make the leap to entrepreneurship, what do they need to know having come from a corporate side first?

[00:21:36] Rob: Wow, that’s a great question. I tell you, I think they need to understand, first and foremost, it’s a grind. You’ve got to get up and work it hard every day. As much as you think, maybe when you’re in a corporate job that you’re busy, and you’re traveling around the world, and all that, there’s a lot of momentum built in to it. When you’re in a large system, there’s just momentum in these big systems.

Whether you work hard today or not, probably isn’t going to impact how much the organization that day, but when you work for yourself, there’s no sort of, “Hey, taking off,” or whatever. It’s just are you making the calls? Are you doing the work? Are you getting the results? Are you tracking those that you could turn around and tell those stories again to potentially new clients?

I do think you also need to know really that when you work for a big firm, everyone takes your call and everyone wants to talk to you. I’ll be honest, it’s probably in part how I built up a lot of my LinkedIn network was when you’re sitting in those jobs, everyone wants to contact you. Once you’re out on your own, it’s a whole different deal. You got to be willing to really go out and work hard because I’m surprised oftentimes how difficult it is just to get a phone call, or a meeting, or a returned email, and you’re thinking, “Really? You wouldn’t spend 10 minutes chatting with me? I got a couple of ideas for your business,” but that’s pretty typical. I think that’s what they got to really know. You got to love doing it, man.

[00:23:11] Alex: Yes, I think you brought up a couple of really great points there. The first being that, and I had never thought of it this way but big corporations have momentum already built in. The flywheel’s been established, the business is moving forward with or without you kind of. That can be a good thing if you want to fit in as a piece of the puzzle but when you go out on your own, you are the momentum. There’s no flywheel unless you get up in the morning and start sending emails to people who probably won’t take your call.

[00:23:38] Rob: Yes, and your point, it’s a little bit of a numbers game. You got to lean on your network and then you find out really how good that network is and who your friends are. That’s true. Like you and I, Alex, we stayed in touch through my corporate gigs and you’re a guy, I admire that about you, you don’t delineate between, “Well, he’s no longer a corporate guy, I’m not going to spend time with him.” It’s just, “Hey, there’s a guy I enjoy chatting with.” It’s always a fun conversation and you’ve stayed in touch. You really find that out once you go out on your own, who your friends are and who aren’t.

[00:24:22] Alex: Yes, absolutely. I’ve always found that non-corporate side people are a lot more fun, just between you and me and all the people listening. Guys, if there’s any lesson in there, make the connections. If you’ve got a big corporate brand name behind you, make the connections now. When you’re on your own like me and Rob are, it’s an awfully lonely place, so do some favors- [laughs]

[00:24:39] Rob: Yes. Good advice. [laughs]

[00:24:40] Alex: – to your buddies now and call them in.

[00:04:39] Rob: [laughs]

[00:24:43] Alex: Rob, this has been here a day. I know our listeners are going to take a ton away on marketing and entrepreneurship from you. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it brother.

 [00:24:54] Rob: Alex, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on and let’s do it again soon.


[00:24:58] Recording: Thanks for listening to this episode of Ignite. If you like what you heard, please leave us a rating and review and before you go, please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss the next episode. For more digital marketing tips, make sure you visit Have a great rest of the day and don’t forget that the most important part of your job is to Ignite grow.

[00:25:24] [END OF AUDIO]

Rob Crews, Premier Restaurant Group

Alex Membrillo


Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).

Cardinal has experienced exponential growth under Membrillo’s leadership, being consecutively named on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing privately-held US companies for the last three years. Membrillo’s innovative approach to digital marketing has transformed the industry and delivered remarkable results to clients of all sizes and markets. He has been featured in leading national publications including The Business Journals, Entrepreneur, Search Engine Journal, and The Wall Street Journal. He has also served as an expert speaker for conferences including the American Marketing Association, SouthWired, and Vistage Executive Leaders, where he spoke on his unique approach to Millennial Management to over 400 CEOs.

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