Q&A: Papa John’s Andrew Varga

It’s been nearly a year since Andrew Varga, a 22-year veteran of Brown-Forman, joined Papa John’s as CMO. Paramount among Varga’s priorities was expanding the digital presence of America’s No. 3 pizza chain, itself a category pioneer in online ordering.

One of the more colorful programs launched under Varga’s watch was the Specialty Pizza Challenge, which let consumers submit their own pizza recipes via Facebook. Headquarters received over 12,000 of them, carefully winnowed to three finalists whose creations will be featured at Papa John’s next month. In a further vote of confidence for crowdsourcing, Varga gave each of the three entrants a $1,000 marketing budget to promote his own recipe. The winner will get a cut of sales, a chance to appear in a TV spot and, perhaps best of all, his or her pie will land a permanent spot on the chain’s menu.

Varga recently sat down with Brandweek to talk crust, sauce and the business of pizza marketing:

Brandweek: Your contest finalists essentially got to do their own marketing. Did you have any advice for them?
Andrew Varga:
Do exactly what we did to attract you to the [Specialty Pizza] Challenge: Use social media. It’s an inexpensive way to get [people] talk[ing] and drive your messaging in a powerful way without having to spend enormous resources.

Might we see some Pizza Challenge ingredients on future menu offerings?
It’s highly likely. We received an enormous number of submissions featuring ingredients we don’t currently have. Something’s going on out there when our customers are looking for these flavors and toppings.

Among the three finalists, did you have a personal favorite?
They are all fantastic. One is a jalapeño pizza with barbecue sauce, chicken and bacon. Another is a jalapeño pizza with meats and our traditional sauce. A third is a chicken cordon bleu pizza with chicken, ham, onion and our alfredo sauce. I like the cordon bleu because it is a name that already has a consumer association and would be easy to market.

You spent over two decades at Brown-Forman. What’s been the biggest challenge in joining Papa John’s?
Speed. This business is as fast as any you’re ever going to see. It also has real-time data that allows it to play out right in front of you. The challenge had a short learning curve. I like to use data to my advantage and it’s something I enjoy about this role. There’s action going on every day. And if we want to make changes on a Friday to affect the weekend, we can do that. If we want to change creative because we don’t like the way it looks, we can do it. That wasn’t available to me in the alcohol industry. It was highly fragmented both at the retailer and at the distributor level, and data was not readily available. It’s been exhilarating here to make decisions so quickly.

What changes have you made since joining Papa John’s?
We didn’t have to make any changes to the team and agencies I inherited. The main reason I came over here was to inherit a great brand proposition that’s been consistently told over 26 years. As for a change in perspective, Papa John’s was doing really good marketing, but with a lot of different activities. We’re now more focused on national television and digital media. We have a phenomenal point of difference in John Schnatter, Papa John’s founder. So leveraging that human element through PR and social media has been a huge advantage.

Your competitors have historically emphasized price while Papa John’s has touted its quality. Given the economic belt-tightening going on these days, is that changing?
Without a doubt, the pricing environment has gotten tougher. But we will continue to do what we do well, which is to focus on our quality advantage. As the environment and the economy allows us, we’ll begin to really play up that quality message and do so in a very profitable fashion.

Papa John’s recently said it expects to increase its marketing budget for the remainder of the year. What are your spending priorities?
The additional dollars are to beef up our national television presence. Papa John’s has traditionally been on TV an average of seven to nine months; this year we’ll be on TV more than we ever have, and we expect to grow that in subsequent years.   

As we were discussing, your Pizza Challenge was launched via Facebook. Do your plans call for increasing your digital and social-media presence in other ways?
We already have amassed 1.3 million fans on Facebook. That speaks not only to our attention to the space but also to the human element in our brand through “Papa John” Schnatter. That makes it easier to have a dialogue, and we’re going to continue to leverage it through social media. We continue to see great success in the dollars we’re putting behind digital media through banner and search, and [we’re seeing] the direct results through sales.

What are your expectations for Papa John’s recent NFL sponsorship deal?
We had a great test drive after we signed our short-term agreement in January, which lasted through the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl has always been an important day for us in sales, but this year it became the largest sales day in our company’s history by a wide margin. We wanted to leverage that success over a three-year period. The NFL has over 50 game days and we believe we’ll gain market share on those days.