Most people know Cinnabon by its mini-bakeries in malls and airports where you can grab a cinnamon roll while hustling from one place to another. And for its first two decades of existence, that’s essentially what Cinnabon was — a fast-growing chain of franchised kiosks in high-traffic venues known for the cream cheese/butter/sugar-frosted treats.

But in the last few years Cinnabon has expanded its brand and its identity by selling new products through new channels. And that’s where it has become very complicated for Cole to manage all those products and distribution channels to make sure Cinnabon’s growing brand continues to function as a seamless, integrated whole.

“That’s definitely the key challenge I’ve faced — being successful at global multichannel brand management,” says Cole, who took the reins at Cinnabon after a 15-year stint with Hooters of America, where she served as vice president.

“The Cinnabon brand is not one-dimensional; it doesn’t play in just one channel or segment. And because we are truly a multichannel business, leading that brand across all those channels and making sure that the channels integrate with each other and feed the brand is by far the most important thing I do.”

Cinnabon — which has more than 900 franchises in 48 countries and is approaching $1 billion in annual consumer sales — has fed its growth in recent years by creating and marketing new products primarily through two new conduits: consumer packaged goods in grocery stores and licensed products sold via other outlets such as fast-food restaurants.

“Our main channel has always been and remains immediate-consumption food service — our franchise bakeries, our company’s face as most consumers would know it,” Cole says. “But we’re seeing significant growth in our newer channels, which are basically grocery retail — our consumer packaged goods division — and food-service licensing, where we develop products for other immediate-consumption restaurant locations.”

Getting those products and distribution channels to mesh well and feed off each other is Cole’s constant and never-ending quest.

Protect the brand

As any company expands its product offerings and increases the number of conduits through which people can obtain them, the complications of doing business multiply, usually a lot more quickly and dauntingly than anyone expects. Cole has learned this lesson firsthand at Cinnabon, and she has tackled the challenge head-on.

“There are inherent complexities when your brand or your products as consumers know them don’t live in just one space — when there’s no longer just one place that they can get them or just one way that they can get access to them,” Cole says.

Safeguarding and augmenting the value of the company’s brand is a key driving factor, and the most crucial consideration Cinnabon’s leadership team weighs is determining which new business opportunities to take on and which ones to let pass.

“My No. 1 leadership focus is to make sure the brand is protected and enhanced — at all times, by every initiative we undertake,” Cole says. “It’s all about the brand. It’s about managing the brand, leading the brand, making sure that any new initiatives are accretive to brand value.

“The essence of this approach is that inherent in any good brand there is equity. The brand carries with it a value that has been built over time, typically through its original channel — in our case, our franchise bakeries. And that equity must always be carefully protected and taken care of, first and foremost.”

Cole cites the recent introduction of Cinnabon’s International Delight Coffee Creamer, which is now available in grocery stores and other retail outlets around the U.S., as an illustrative example of the way the company creates a new business channel to enhance the value of its brand. Cinnabon’s leadership team first determined that expanding the company’s presence in the market for coffee-related products would be a good fit for Cinnabon.

“It’s a matter of understanding where your branded products have equity and where that value can readily translate into a new area,” Cole says. “For us, we feel that we own quality indulgence. It’s who we are. When people think of our brand, they think of over-the-top indulgence — warm aromas, warm flavors, warm textures. And when you’re crystal-clear about what attributes you own, that allows you to then extend those attributes into other products.

“We knew we wanted to be in the coffee family of products, because that’s all about warmth and comfort, and it goes well with cinnamon rolls and our flavors and our other products.”

Partner selectively

Once Cinnabon’s executive team members decided they wanted to expand the company’s footprint in the coffee sector, they sought a suitable partner to help their company create and market a new retail coffee-related product.

“When we look for a group to partner with in any channel, we always look for best-in-class,” Cole says. “We do this because we have a premium brand — it may be a snack brand, but it’s a premium snack brand — so we feel we always need to be with premium partners that have brand awareness at least equal to ours. Two companies that have fit that type of requirement for us in the past are Kellogg’s and Pillsbury, to cite a couple of examples. In the coffee creamer space, we decided International Delight was the best fit.”

So Cinnabon teamed up with International Delight, whose coffee creamer products are distributed by WhiteWave Foods, and the companies together created a cinnamon-flavored coffee creamer that met their respective quality standards and their goals for introducing the jointly marketed, co-branded product.

“We had to be heavily involved in the R&D, because the flavors and the aroma have to be just right,” Cole says. “We can’t afford to have a product out there in the market that has a picture of our cinnamon roll on the label — a product that we’re that heavily invested in — and, you know, have it taste like Red Hots. The quality has to meet our standards. That’s hugely important to us. It would be too easy to just go and throw your name on things.”

Cinnabon’s R&D department and licensing group worked with International Delight to tweak and refine the cinnamon flavor of the creamer to ensure that it would meet Cinnabon’s customer’s expectations.

“The end result is this amazing, disturbingly delicious coffee creamer,” Cole says. “And, you know, that’s the bar that we always have to meet. When you open the bottle and smell it or when you pour it in your coffee and taste it, you have to have one of those eyes-roll-back-in-your-head moments. Like, ‘Wow, this is so good it’s almost inappropriate.’ That’s what we go for. And we won’t stop — we won’t release a product — until we get to that point.”

Cinnabon has had similar success partnering with other companies to license new products, including Pillsbury and Kellogg’s, as well as Burger King, through which it markets the Minibon, a smaller version of its signature cinnamon roll, and Taco Bell, through which it has licensed Taco Bell Cinnabon Delights — doughnut-hole-like balls filled with sweet cream cheese frosting and dusted with cinnamon and sugar.

Know yourself

Cinnabon has enjoyed success in recent years with these multichannel brand initiatives — new products introduced, financial growth, growth in the number of distribution points, synergies with the channels reinvesting in one another in varying combinations. Cole attributes the company’s recipe for success to a number of ingredients, chief among them the Cinnabon leadership team’s clear understanding of the company’s identity and its strengths and weaknesses.

“If there’s one piece of advice I would offer above all others, it’s that you’ve got to have clarity on the core of your brand and what makes it unique,” Cole says. “If you miss that, you’ll make mistakes, and it will be difficult to correct them later. You have to really get down to your core DNA. If you’re going to expand your brand into different channels beyond the channel you started in and where you had your early successes, you have to make sure you clearly understand what you’re about and what you’re not about.”

In the end, successfully managing a brand with multiple products marketed via multiple channels is a matter of constantly asking yourself whether each new opportunity is right for your company and, most importantly, being able to articulate convincingly why it is or isn’t a good fit.

“When tweaking your business model to grow in new ways, you, as the leader, have to keep your compass set on doing the right things for the right reasons,” Cole says. “That sounds simple, but it’s not. You can’t let yourself get distracted by tomorrow’s opportunities. You have to continually ask, ‘What are the right things to do for the brand?’ and ‘What are the right reasons for doing those things?’ — and make sure everyone is aligned around that. That’s how you keep the business pure; it’s how you keep integrity around the business and keep people’s hearts and minds focused on building the brand over time.”

How to reach: Cinnabon Inc., (888) 288-7655 or


The Cole File

Kat Cole


Cinnabon Inc.

Born: Jacksonville, Fla.

Education: MBA, Georgia State University

What business leadership lessons did you learn during the time you were studying to get your MBA?

When I was getting my MBA, we were in the processing of selling my previous company, Hooters. So it was like getting two graduate degrees at once. I would go to class and learn a new financial modeling system, and then go and meet with investors and analysts and apply what I had learned.

What was your first job, and what business lessons did you learn from it?

I sold clothes in a mall when I was 15. I learned a lot about connecting with people in that job, and partnering — working with customers shoulder-to-shoulder instead of nose-to-nose.

Do you have a business philosophy that you use to guide you?

Do the right things for the right reasons. And, at all costs, do what you can to avoid being swayed away from that philosophy. Having someone at the top who’s always asking the question ‘Is this the right thing for the right reasons?’ can really help a company avoid risk and build a powerful culture.

What trait do you think is most important for an executive to have in order to be a successful leader?

I would say adaptability is No. 1. And then I think there’s this other intangible, and I don’t know if there’s a single word for it. It’s a combination of traits that results in a leader being able to make others believe.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Be thoughtfully bold. That speaks to respecting others and understanding your environment, but being willing to speak up and take chances. That advice came from a mentor that I had in the industry.

Published in Atlanta