Domino’s Delivers

I have to come clean about my worthless crust, bad sauce and cheese that’s not cheese.

Wait — I’m confusing myself with Domino’s pizza! I hate when I do that. What I do need to apologize for is criticizing the apology — for dissing the company’s self-diss, for talking smack about the Domino’s campaign that talked smack. If you follow.

The company just announced a robust 14 percent revenue boost for the first quarter, at a time when most fast-food outlets are flat or down. Some of the credit has to go to the gutsy ad campaign from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which was devised to — and did — create as much talk and free media mentions as anything the agency has ever done, including Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken.” (In what was not a paid placement but, given the layers of irony, was probably a mixed blessing, Stephen Colbert named the company his “Alpha dog of the week” at one point in January, and said, “It takes alpha meatballs to stand up and say, ‘America, we suck!'”)

So, I’ll do a Domino’s and admit I was wrong. (Visual of me hitting myself in the head with a Domino’s box goes here.)

When I wrote about the introductory phase of the work in January, I found the “Oh yes we did!” stuff head-scratchingly earnest, to the point of self-parody. Let’s face it: We’re so used to ads lying that words like “new” and “improved” have become huge clichés. So, I thought the whole corporate mea culpa and vow to improve was too big a risk to take.

After all, how much better could this pizza be, given the limits of preparing pies by the millions? No ad campaign would work for any length of time if the pizza still tastes relatively cardboard-like. Plus, what about humiliating, alienating and just generally pissing off your loyal existing customer base, who suddenly hear they don’t have any taste?

The intro spot showed cooks in the kitchen and suits in the marketing department talking about how their feelings were hurt by the focus groups’ nasty critiques of the product. I also said it was “suck-uppy” of the agency to include the actual client executives (like the marketing director and CEO) in the spot. Now I realize it was the opposite. Imagine the retribution if they made those execs look like laughingstocks!

Still, I was sort of dumbstruck at the idea that after 50 years of business, the company had just discovered its product resembled ketchup on cardboard. In fairness, Domino’s was always most about utility. They were delivery-centric people, busy touting the 30-minutes-to-your-door proposition while the market changed around them. Customers’ taste buds got more discerning, frozen offerings  better, more people made pizza, rolling the dough on the marble islands of their McMansions, and the competition amped up.

And it’s hard to turn around a big, old corporate ship and make company-wide changes when the business is mostly franchisees. Also, the consumer insights came only after two full years of R&D.

I also didn’t foresee how well the opening spot would lay the groundwork. The genius is in the follow-up, making great use of every stop along the way in the apology-redemption story arc.

The director of the series is Smuggler’s Henry Alex Rubin, who co-directed Murderball, a documentary about wheelchair rugby players. He made this Domino’s stuff look great and smell authentic. My fave was the follow-up series that delivered real Domino’s chefs to the doors of people who complained the loudest in the focus groups. It was like a modern take on a classic 60 Minutes ambush crossed with the old balloons-and-big-check delivery of Publishers Clearing House.

At heart, Americans are nice, and most of these focus-group stars were embarrassed. But they all seemed to like the new pizza. One guy said, aptly, that he was “eating my words.”

The next iteration set off town-wide searches for the “holdouts” — the “only” people left who hadn’t tasted the new flavah. Given the setup and all the hidden cameras, the spots are beautifully textured and well paced. (Go to PizzaHoldouts.com to see them.)

Also online is Taste Bud Bounty Hunters, a recent launch on Facebook. The reverse of “Whopper Sacrifice,” which flamed out, this effort encourages people to turn in friends who are “pizza holdouts,” who then turn in other friends, and so on, pyramid style. You can win free stuff — even pizza for a year.

It’s not as much fun as de-friending people for a Whopper, but it builds.

So, “pulling a Domino’s” has actually entered the American vernacular, meaning to come clean and start over. I’m still not sure about the alpha meatballs part.