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As the Vice President and Head of Marketing for Cinnabon, the beloved QSR brand praised for its world-famous cinnamon rolls, Michael Pittman shapes its strategic direction and provides functional leadership to keep Cinnabon a cultural staple. With a background leading CPG companies like The Coca-Cola Company, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo, he’s been recognized as a pivotal force behind the success of numerous challenger and leader brands. Michael’s career is guided by two principles: embrace discomfort to find transformative ideas and combine disruptive thinking with proven strategic frameworks to break through the clutter and generate sustainable growth. 

What gives me energy outside of work

Cooking is a creative outlet that gives me energy. If I wasn’t marketing food & beverages, then I would have gone to culinary school to learn how to make great food.

Every marketer should read…

“‘No Bullsh*t Strategyby Alex Smith is a book I highly recommend. It’s a simple read that demystifies strategy with clear and easy actions you can implement immediately to help create a competitive advantage. Truly a masterclass!

What inspires me most…

The accomplishments of my family and friends inspire me to set my own standard of success and work each day to be better than the last.

Future of Marketing

Q: What is one thing coming down the pike for marketing are you most excited about?

I’m excited about the resurgence of brand marketing and long-term brand building. In the last few years, we saw a heavy emphasis on performance marketing, but opinion is changing, and organizations are shifting back to a more balanced approach. Teams now recognize that pitting brand building and performance marketing against each other makes both less effective. Integrating brand and performance marketing creates the magic that turns single-purchase buyers into lifetime customers. It’s been fun to watch and experience brands rediscovering their narratives.   

Q: What’s a prediction you have or something that you see evolving in brand marketing over the next few years? 

The evolution of search behavior is reshaping brand building, rendering the traditional phrase ‘just Google it’ outdated. In recent years, we’ve witnessed a significant shift as more individuals turn to platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and X as their primary search engines. Surprisingly, about 40% of Gen Z used TikTok and Instagram over Google for their searches last year.

Focusing on SEO to enhance website and content rankings on conventional search engines like Google used to suffice, but the landscape is changing. There’s a growing need to optimize social media content with the same meticulousness. Brevity, once crucial for social engagement, is taking a backseat to incorporating more keywords and detailed content. This shift emphasizes marketers’ need to adapt their strategies to encompass the evolving dynamics of social search.  

Q: What widely accepted “marketing truth” or concept do you wish the industry would do away with or evolve?  

One-size-fits-all customer journeys. Traditional marketing models often follow a linear customer journey, assuming that consumers move seamlessly through a sequence starting from awareness to consideration, purchase, and ending with loyalty. In reality, customer journeys are diverse and nonlinear. Modern customer journeys need to be dynamic and adaptive, recognizing the uniqueness of each consumer’s path. They should use data-driven insights to personalize brand interactions, accommodate multi-channel touchpoints, and adapt in real time.   

Marketing at Cinnabon

Q: What’s something exciting you’re currently working on?  

Revolutionizing loyalty through experiential engagement is a focal point of our current initiatives at Cinnabon. Loyalty is rapidly evolving beyond traditional points and rewards, especially for lower purchase frequency brands like Cinnabon, where a significant amount of guests visit only a few times a year. Our loyalty program has to deliver greater utility to be successful, which requires us to embrace a ‘rewards AND’ philosophy. In this shifting landscape, the differentiator lies in the overall experience.

Still, in its early stages, Cinnabon’s loyalty program holds significant potential. I’m particularly enthusiastic about reimagining what an experiential loyalty program could entail. One that goes beyond merely rewarding loyal patrons with delectable treats but seeks to provide value that enhances their daily lives, fostering stronger brand affinity. 

Q: What’s the most pressing business challenge you’ve faced within the last year, and how have you tried to solve it?  

It’s a classic brand management challenge, but with lower barriers to entry resulting in significantly more challenger brands emerging, it’s how to keep tried and true iconic brands relevant. During a time characterized by more rapid change in consumer expectations than in recent history, staging a brand turnaround is a challenge I’ve had to tackle in most of my most recent roles.

Solving this task requires a willingness to interrogate long-time rooted beliefs and assumptions about brand truths and operating principles, re-evaluating everything from the target consumer, competitive set, and brand equities to find new opportunities to recalibrate the brand to stay relevant. Success depends on articulating a compelling business case for change that rallies internal stakeholders and finding a communication strategy that walks the fine line of celebrating the brand’s heritage (being timeless) in an evolved way that is contemporary (being timely). 

Career and Leadership Advice

Q: What’s the most game-changing career advice you’ve ever received?

Guided by the advice, “Breadth of experience will make you a better marketing leader,” I’ve actively crafted a 15-year career spanning a multitude of diverse experiences across the entire marketing spectrum. As a result, today, I lead from a position of strength and resilience, armed with the strategic acumen to swiftly assess situations, identify opportunities, and drive actions that lead to success. 

Q: What leadership muscle is most important for marketers to exercise?

As marketing leaders, we frequently find ourselves engrossed in delivering tactical marketing and may overlook the potency of storytelling. Nonetheless, it remains our responsibility to demonstrate to our organizations and teams why stories should be the cornerstone of every marketing initiative for internal persuasion and consumer-facing messaging. Stories can inspire action and transcend time, people, and cultures, ultimately connecting us all. They humanize brands, foster trust and loyalty, and ensure brands are more than products. 

Marketers to Watch is a recognition series to spotlight highly innovative and forward-thinking marketing leaders in the community. If you have someone you’d like to nominate for the series, apply here.