Photos by Rick Daugherty
America talked and Domino’s Pizza is listened. If you’ve watched any television over of the course of the past year, you’ve probably seen several corporate faces on the company’s advertising campaign serving up healthy doses of humble pie. In a series of commercials, Brandon Solano, the company’s VP of brand innovation, and CEO Patrick Doyle readily admit their original product is inferior and a change was needed … so they made it happen.
The result? Not only the public’s attention but also that of media watchdogs as well. Could such a public mea culpa actually have negative results? And how would the franchisees take it?
“I was a little bit nervous at what the reaction was going to be from the time they saw it until the time we launched. How were they going to react without kind of seeing the outcome?” Doyle says. “What was most interesting to me was (that) I expected a much more mixed reaction on the launch plan than what we got. Our franchisees looked at the advertising and said, ‘You know what? I get it. I’ve been a franchisee for 20, 25 years and I’ve heard this criticism before. It’s not like this was out of the blue.’ ”
Honesty, it seems, is the best policy. The commercials air the criticisms from consumers and focus groups and hold little back. After the rollout, Domino’s tracked down some of its critics and urged them to try it again. Haven’t tried it yet? The company plastered three regular Joes’ hometowns telling them to give the new pizza a try. They did,with cameras rolling.
“Minds don’t change overnight,” Doyle warns. “While I’d love to change everybody’s minds, what it really means is as we continue to build credibility for the quality and taste of all of the food that we sell at Domino’s, it’s going to continue to change people’s perceptions of the brand over time. And that improvement in percentages over time means sales growth over, hopefully, a long period of time.”
Domino’s created a separate Web site, www. pizzaturnaround.com, which features actual focus group feedback, a live Twitter stream and corporate employees looking, well, dejected as they listened and read the comments. Doyle and his corporate team then walk viewers through the new pizza process. They’ve also adopted a new tagline: “Oh Yes We Did,” which answers the question: Did we actually face our critics and reinvent our pizza from the crust up?
Russell Weiner, Domino’s chief marketing officer, says the company changed its advertising techniques to a more honest and organic approach in an effort to connect them to the brand on a personal level. “What we were doing is evolving our brand positioning,” he says, adding that consumers are connected via mobile devices and through the Internet but are connecting personally less.
“We didn’t walk away from (focusing on) delivery. We walked away from making ourselves only about delivering,” he adds. Because Domino’s Pizza arrived at the door so quickly, consumers often had a negative image about the preparation of the food. Connecting consumers with the food was critical for the advertising campaigns –– and, essentially, the rollout of new products –– to work.
“One of the things that we do as a marketing team is (that) we want to do marketing in a time machine,” Weiner says. “We want to create five to seven years of progress in one year. To do that, we wanted to do things in a break-through way. And, not just break-through for break-through’s sake. … It was more about if we’re going to put real people in our ads, and people want real connections, then you’ve got to be honest with them. And that’s what we did.”
Following the launch of Domino’s Pizza’s new Oven- Baked Sandwiches line in 2008, it conducted an independent taste test comparing it with QSR sandwich giant Subway. Domino’s claims that its sandwich line beat Subway 2 to 1 took to the airwaves in a bold advertising campaign aimed at securing the sandwich delivery segment.
Soon after, Subway issued a cease-and-desist letter that questioned the validity of the taste test. Domino’s answer? Then- CEO David Brandon stepped up Domino’s game by “oven-burning” the letter in a commercial. After all, Subway had attempted to enter the pizza market in the past and turnabout is fair play.
“We were confident in the data,” Weiner says, adding that his experience working with The Pepsi Challenge (comparing the beverage to its competitor, Coca- Cola) helped. “You can’t run a claim advertisement on national television without showing the backup to the networks.”
The company posted that ad on YouTube the weekend before the Super Bowl and it generated 1.2 million hits. “People responded, and we really started to realize that if your food is great –– which ours was –– and you’re willing to stand behind it and put your face to it, and telling the truth, it seems to work,” Weiner says.
During the launch of the American Legends line, which features all-American dishes brought to pizza, the company put its franchisees in the ad to argue for their respective locales. “What’s to make you think that that’s a great pizza more than having the guy who makes it in” a commercial, Weiner says, adding that it was a “home run” for the company.
Another winner was Domino’s Big Taste Bailout Package, which offered $5 pizzas. Its advertising again featured its own CEO, was filmed in Washington D.C. and aired as corporate leaders descended on the nation’s capital asking for their own bailout. “This was a bailout that was costing us money,” says Weiner, “so it was real, and it was true, and that’s why it worked. … That was one of our best windows last year.”
The advertising campaign for Domino’s newest dessert, its Chocolate Lava Cakes, pitted the company’s accountants (the cakes were given away free with the purchase of a Pasta Bread Bowl) against the chefs who created the dish over who should be given credit for the deal. Again, real people and real food, Weiner adds.
Internally, the company believes in “delivering the ‘Wow’,” and that doesn’t just involve its corporate office. “Whatever you’re doing, whether you’re doing an ad, you’re prepping a new product, you’re doing an interview, it needs to deliver the ‘Wow’,” Weiner says.
“You have to get people’s attention,” Doyle adds. “But at the end of the day, it’s about getting people to try the pizza. If we can get them to try the pizza with the knowledge that this is something very new and different than you’ve had from Domino’s in the past, we win.” ❖
The YouTube Incident
In April 2009, Domino’s Pizza made national headlines, but it wasn’t for a new product. Instead, a viral video featured two employees at a North Carolina franchise abusing customers’ orders before they were delivered. The result was a public relations nightmare.
“We found out about the video within 45 minutes of it being posted from external sites as well as our own monitoring team,” says Tim McIntyre, vice president, communications. “This was one of those incidents that just felt different. … The people (in the video) were so brazen about what they were doing that this one felt really bad.” Security and operations teams pulled still photos from the video immediately and emailed them to franchisees within hours of the postings looking for the pair, which McIntrye likened to looking for a needle in a haystack.
By 10:30 that evening, company officials had identified employees Kristy Hammonds and Michael Setzer. He received an apology e-mail from Hammonds at 1:38 a.m. (which was released to the public verbatim).Police, the local health department and the franchisee were contacted, and felony charges were fi led.
“Our fi rst priority was to fi nd them,” McIntyre says, “and if the food they were tainting had actually left the store.” (McIntyre says it was a hoax and the food was never delivered, as the small-town store wasn’t busy and the manager was in the back office reading a newspaper.)
“Secondly, we began to communicate with YouTube. We communicated with some other sites like The Consumerist that had reposted the videos. … We didn’t feel compelled to issue a press release or hold a press conference. That would have been akin to putting out a candle with a fire hose.” They issued a statement the next day on the company’s Web site telling consumers they were aware of the videos as management searched for a way to handle the negativity.
Winthin 48 hours, Domino’s issued a rebuttal featuring CEO Patrick Doyle on YouTube using the same search terms as the original videos. Find those, and you’d also find the corporate video. “We let people know on YouTube, where this thing originated, that we know this video is out there, it’s a hoax and we’re sorry for what these people did and how they’re portraying our brand,” McIntyre says.
Initially, views of the original videos spiked then waned. “Social media has a short attention span. We kind of ruined it by letting people know that we knew about it. … It was only attractive when people thought it was real.” Soon after Doyle’s response hit the Internet, mainstream media picked up the story. By that time, the story was less about Domino’s food being tainted and more about the company being victimized by two rogue employees and how other companies should protect themselves. Subsequently, the franchisee was not able to sustain his business and has closed.
“What this allowed us to do was to be open and honest about our anger,” McIntyre says. “There were a lot of victims here. The brand was a victim. This independent business owner lost his pizza stores because of what they did. Fifteen or 20 people who worked for him lost their jobs. “A year later, the brand not only survived, but it thrives. … To me, it speaks to the power of the brand.” ❖
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.
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