2011 April: Spreading the News

Build an exceptional pizza, tasty pasta dish or a delicious salad and the customers will come — if you get the word out. But how do you tempt the masses without spending massive amounts on advertising?

Clint Harris, co-founder of Promise Pizza with locations in Austin and Round Rock, Texas, says he used to create flyers and box toppers in addition to advertising in newspapers and magazines. Then he realized his customers were sophisticated enough to use social media as their main source of news about new pizza products. As a bonus, he saved the money he would have used on print advertising.

But, let’s back up for a minute because the first step in marketing a new product is testing it to see if it will sell. At Promise Pizza, Harris uses employees as guinea pigs first, then friends and family. If the product passes muster after going through that chain, it’s put out for customers to try.

“We bring free slices out to them and ask them to give us their honest opinion,” says Harris.

He readily admits it’s not a very scientific method of evaluating a potential product. In fact, many people say they like new products just to be polite. Still, if the response is an overwhelming “awesome,” Harris then takes that as a positive and moves forward with the new item.

The current new offering at Edwardo’s Natural Pizza, with nine locations in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, is hummus pizza (different flavors of hummus have replaced the pizza sauce). The first test was to see what kind of toppings the staff put on these unique pizzas.

“We let them play with the hummus, because they have lots of good ideas,” says Ken Weidner, director of operations for Edwardo’s.

When Edwardo’s had some good, viable combinations, they took testing of the hummus pizzas one step further by organizing two focus groups using regular customers –– one with teens and one with adults. Both groups were given identical pizzas. The hummus pizzas made a better showing with the adults.

Once testing of this nature is completed, it becomes necessary to train employees to properly make the dish consistently. Once that is achieved, it’s time for servers to push the new item.

“First, we sit down with the managers and tell them about the new item. They need to make sure they have what they need so it will be made exactly the same every time, no matter who makes it,” says Harris. “All the staff has tasted the new product and knows the ingredients so they can tell customers about it.”

At Edwardo’s Natural Pizza, the management team is also the first to be trained. They know how many ounces of hummus go on the new pizza, that it needs to be evenly distributed with no hills and valleys and that there should be a taste of hummus in every bite. Those managers, in turn, train the kitchen staff and the servers. Anyone with direct customer contact must know what hummus is, how it’s made and what flavors are available.

When it comes time to spread the news, a wide variety of vehicles exist to get the information to consumers — and most of them are either free or inexpensive. Jeff Sayers, founder of Mangia Pizza in Austin, Texas, likes to put new offerings on a whiteboard as the special of the day for all his customers to see when they walk into the restaurant. If that goes over well, he announces it on Mangia’s Facebook page and places flyers on pizza boxes announcing the new item and asking customers to try it.

“We haven’t spent any money on print advertising in the past two years,” says Sayers.

Weidner also says they do very little TV or print advertising at Edwardo’s, but they are involved in a radio station trade program, which makes advertising on the radio a bargain.

Through this program, radio stations trade air time for Edwardo’s gift certificates. The stations use the certificates as giveaways or sell them as their deal of the day online, usually at 50 percent off their face value. In turn Edwardo’s receives radio air-time to advertise new products or whatever they wish.

Besides using radio, Edwardo’s puts box toppers on to-go pizzas, describes new items on an insert in a jacketed menu and sends the information out in twice-monthly e-mail blasts to 10,000 e-mail subscribers.

Harris stays fairly active on Twitter by sending out the Promise Pizza deal of the day, which can include new items, but finds Facebook an easier social media tool to communicate with customers and likes that it can be personalized with photos and videos. E-mail, however, wins the prize and is used the most to tell customers about new products.

Whichever method you use, make sure your product is right before marketing it. The buzz will get customers in once — but if the product lets them down, they won’t be back.

Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma, Washington, who frequently writes for trade publications.