Papa John's pushed-out CMO already hired by Potbelly

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Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Brandon Rhoten, who was pushed out of Papa John's last month as CMO, has landed a job as senior VP and CMO at Potbelly.

The CMO position is a new one for Potbelly, the Chicago-based sandwich shop said.

Rhoten joined Papa John's from Wendy's in late May 2017, and left a year later. His Papa John's tenure came during a tumultuous time for the fourth-largest pizza chain. Comments made in late 2017 by Papa John's founder, John Schnatter, pegging the chain's weak sales in part to players' protests during the national anthem, further dragged down its sales and stock price.

Brandon Rhoten
Brandon Rhoten

Rhoten tried to shake things up. This included the hiring of Laundry Service to replace Grey as the pizza chain's creative agency and tapping Olson Engage for PR, dropping Edelman. But results remained weak at Papa John's, including a steeper-than-anticipated 5.3 percent drop in first-quarter U.S. same-store sales.

Potbelly, meanwhile, is celebrating its 41st anniversary in 2018 in what it has dubbed a transition year. In May, Potbelly reported a 3.6 percent decline in first-quarter comparable sales at company-operated locations, which it blamed in part on issues like bad weather and the shift in the timing of Easter. At that time, President and CEO Alan Johnson said comparable sales trends improved through the first quarter and that momentum had continued into the second quarter. For the year, it has forecast flat comparable sales at company-operated shops.

The sandwich chain has started to make some changes under Johnson, who joined as CEO in December. Potbelly has said it's spending more on marketing after being underinvested in the area. It's running a 30-second spot, from Jacobson Rost, on programmatic TV and social media for its new limited-time Cuban sandwich, for example.

Potbelly Corp. runs more than 450 U.S. shops on its own and franchisees operate another 50 or so in the U.S., Canada, the Middle East, the United Kingdom and India.

Meanwhile, Papa John's has not yet named a new CMO. In mid-May, CEO Steve Ritchie said he'd lead marketing in the interim as the chain looks for, as he put it, a marketer who has the skills to execute "with urgency and agility."

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