Category of One: How Papa Murphy’s CMO is Using ‘Uniqueness’ to Corner the Market
Category of One: How Papa Murphy’s CMO is Using ‘Uniqueness’ to Corner the Market

The brand stands alone in the industry by mixing its dough, freshly shredding real mozzarella cheese and slicing fresh vegetables and toppings in-store each day.

Brandon Solano has had his fair share of momentous phone calls.

There was the call from The Hershey Company that started his journey up the ladder from brand manager to marketing director. There was the call from then-Domino’s chief financial officer Ken Calwell, asking him to bring his trademark big ideas to help turn the struggling brand around. There was the call in 2014 from Wendy’s, asking him to build a similarly unique marketing plan for the $9 billion industry giant as senior vice president of marketing. He was named chief marketing officer just six months later.

But, it was a second call from Calwell years later that helped shape where Solano’s impressive career trajectory has now landed.

“Ken had taken his extensive brand experience to lead Papa Murphy’s to a new level of success, and he called me in mid-2015 and said ‘I need a CMO who isn’t afraid shake things up,’” Solano said. “I’ve considered myself a change agent throughout my career. It’s been my calling card, so to speak. When I came out to Papa Murphy’s head office in Washington and saw firsthand the passion that this brand inspires, the deal was sealed for me.”

At Papa Murphy’s, Solano is leveraging decades of strong marketing experience and extensive operational knowledge in the pizza industry from those days at Domino’s. In each previous position he’s held, Solano has worked quickly to disrupt.

“At Domino’s, I was running the innovation side of the business, and my team quickly recognized the core of the brand had to change. We had to change the image among consumers. So, we led the development of a portfolio of new products aimed at transformation, from oven-baked sandwiches and new pasta options to a new and improved pizza recipe. We turned Domino’s into a ‘sexy’ concept again. Once that was in place, we began concentrating on pushing growth,” Solano said.

Within two years of taking over as VP of development, Solano and his team had boosted Domino’s net store count from -20 to +56. But, the lure of brand management through marketing continued to call him. Wendy’s provided his answer.

“Wendy’s gave me the opportunity to help take new risks,” Solano said. “It’s a brand that has carved a niche in a very traditional space, but needed a new push. Some established brands tend to be risk adverse, focusing on the bad things that can happen if they go too far outside the box. So they stand still. My goal was to start running again.”

Solano is now using that same sense of inspiration to push Papa Murphy’s to the next level. But, there is at least one hurdle he’s encountered while working with other brands that he isn’t facing now.

“Papa Murphy’s isn’t broken,” Solano said. “The brand loyalty is amazing with Papa Murphy’s. People across the Northwest grew up with this brand, and they love it. We want to capture that passion as we continue expanding to new markets across the country.”

To do that, Solano is focused on building brand equity based on Papa Murphy’s already well established base: quality, freshness and convenience. The brand stands alone in the industry by mixing its dough, freshly shredding real mozzarella cheese and slicing fresh vegetables and toppings in-store each day.

“We do things nobody else can do,” Solano said. “We’re fully customizable. We’ve got that story of freshness, and we need to shout it from the rooftops. But, we also need to change the base narrative. We pioneered the concept in fresh pizza, but the term has been coopted and overused by so many brands since then that it’s lost meaning. We are exceptionally fresh, and that puts us in a category of one. We’re not the take-and-bake pizza you buy at a grocery store, and we’re going to be further differentiating based on that truth.”

Making that message hit home with Papa Murphy’s core group of consumers is now Solano’s biggest focus. And, the brand is doing its due diligence to ensure it does, hiring a psychologist from Harvard University’s famed psychology lab to determine what resonates best and what brand messaging should be employed to hammer home that mission of differentiation.

“Our recent push to switch to antibiotic-free chicken across our entire system is a great example of that differentiation point. Some of our franchisees don’t understand why we made the switch. It costs them more. But, it appeals to our core demographic: moms and families. That’s important to them, so it’s important to us,” Solano said.

As Papa Murphy’s marketing team now works to develop a new pipeline of exceptionally fresh products and position the brand to take better advantage of new technology like mobile app ordering, Solano is planting his own flag with the brand, buying thousands of shares of Papa Murphy’s stock in August.

“It’s a statement of belief in our brand’s future,” Solano said. “Sure, we have things to fix. What brand doesn’t? The beauty of Papa Murphy’s is: all of those things are within our control, and we have the will and the ability to do it. That’s the ideal scenario for me.”