19 Apr

How Do You Make Your Messaging Stand Out? Do Like Papa John’s

Love pizza? You’re in really good company. Three billion pizzas, or 46 slices of it are sold for every person in the country, every year. In all, 100 acres of pizza are eaten every day in the U.S. It’s a lot of pepperoni, no question, but it’s also a crowded (and competitive) field.

Pizza lovers can get their fix from any number of sources: make it at home, get carry-out from the locally-owned joint down the road, bake a frozen pizza, dine in at an artisan wood-fired/coal-fired/anything-fired pizza pub, or get it delivered from a major chain like Domino’s, Pizza Hut or Papa John’s.

With the exception of the major chains and frozen pizza purveyors, pizza restaurants don’t typically have major marketing budgets. But those that do have millions to spend. So how do you spend that money effectively, and move preference, awareness and sales, when at the end of the day you’re all talking about the same product? Crust? Check. Sauce? Check. Cheese? Check? Pie-shaped? Check…. I’m playing with fire here by not acknowledging that there’s a significant spectrum of quality across the pizza playing field. There is. But that’s also part of the challenge: how do I sell you on my pizza, by just saying it tastes better?

Working for a Cincinnati marketing agency, I understand the challenge major pizza chains face, because so many of us marketers are similarly challenged: How do you make your product or service stand out in what may already be a very crowded market?

Let’s take a look at Papa John’s latest strategy for a good example of messaging done right. Papa John’s is either the third or fourth largest chain in the United States, depending on the source. Pizza Hut comes in first, with more than $13 billion in sales annually. Domino’s trails with around $9 billion in annual sales, and Papa John’s is a distant third with around $3 billion in sales. The “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” guys are the David to Pizza Hut’s Goliath.

Pizza Hut has made their niche with what can either be described as innovation, or sometimes just plain weirdness. The chain that first made pan pizzas nationally recognized has spent the past couple of decades making significant investments in R&D, among them:

  • Stuffed crust pizza (because what do you need when you finish eating cheese? More cheese.)
  • Hot dog bites baked into the crust (because what do you need when you finish eating cheese? Hot dogs.)
  • Pizza Hut perfume (because what do you need when you finish eating cheese? To smell like cheese.)
  • Big Dipper pizza, a giant rectangle of pizza (or breadsticks, depending on your point of view), cut into strips and served with four cups of dipping sauce.
  • 4ForAll pizza, which was intended to satisfy all the pizza lovers in your house, with four individual square pizzas packaged in one rectangular box. The Muppets and Jessica Simpson served as spokespersons for that one.

Domino’s re-booted their brand seven years ago, with advertising based on feedback from its harshest critics, and an acknowledgement that frankly, their pizza didn’t taste very good. The mea culpa worked, because growth has been steady ever since, allowing the chain’s marketing and advertising to focus on things like a broad menu expansion and voice-activated pizza ordering via its app.

That leaves Papa John’s. Their latest commercial takes a direct hit at Pizza Hut and Domino’s, characterizing Papa John’s as the “pizza family,” and the big guys as “pizza companies.” The pizza family invests in things like farm-grown tomatoes, and the pizza companies invest in things like pizza oven motorcycles (“makes your pizza taste faster”).

The pizza companies chop their vegetables with machines in mega-factories; the pizza family chops its vegetables by hand, in its stores. The pizza company’s CEO is proverbial oatmeal-in-a-gray-bowl: a humorless man wearing a drab suit and sitting in a conference room; the pizza family is headed by the friendly-faced founder of Papa John’s, John Schnatter, surrounded by happy employees.

It’s a clever – and more personal – look at the idea of “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” The spot plays up Papa John’s smaller stature, and seeks to capitalize on Americans’ current preference for fresh and locally sourced. It works to remind the viewer that gimmicks and investors aside, Papa John’s is the pizza to choose if you want the focus to be on the pizza and what goes into making it.

It’s a great reminder about the strength that’s found in developing and consistently delivering messaging that differentiates. What do you think? Agree or not?