Easy as Pie

In many ways, Russell Weiner was the target customer for his own ad campaign. After all, Weiner, who became CMO for Domino’s  two years ago, says he ate a lot of the Domino’s pizza in college but felt he had outgrown it in the years after school.

His palate had changed, as had the American consumer’s, and the product itself had to evolve, Weiner says. But the marketing also needed refreshing, especially after a 2009 incident in which rogue Domino’s employees posted a video of themselves doing disgusting things with the pizza on YouTube. The spectacle showcased social media’s power to quickly unravel a brand and gave consumers one more reason to get their pizza elsewhere.         

Weiner’s response was bold. No stranger to risk taking, at Pepsi he once ran a promotion to send a consumer into space on a Russian rocket. (After the unmanned Russian rocket Soyuz blew up, Pepsi pulled the promo.) The idea for Domino’s: a self-deprecating campaign that would begin with a spot in which consumers, in vivid detail, described how bad the pizza was and then introduce the reformulated version.

Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle, for one, admits he had “a bit of a knot” in his stomach when the pizza chain launched “Pizza turnaround” from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami, last December. The ads showed real focus groups describing Domino’s “cardboard crust” and likening the sauce to ketchup. The $75 million campaign also did something unheard of in the industry: It talked smack about food the company had been selling for decades.

But Weiner, whom Doyle had recruited from PepsiCo and who’s also logged time at Philip Morris and Draftfcb, had a solid rationale. He talked about a yearning among American consumers to hear the truth at a time when banks were collapsing, Wall Street and Detroit were imploding, and confidence in corporations, politicians and authority figures had sunk to all-time lows.

And then there was the research that found that the marketer was tops in service, convenience and bang-for-the-buck, but trailed its competitors in taste. In fact, the chain was tied for last place with Chuck E. Cheese, which had never taken any culinary prizes. Sales were lagging, down 5 percent in ’09 compared to the previous year, and the chain had posted seven negative quarters in a row, per researcher Technomic.

“We had to be open, honest and transparent,” says Weiner, 42. “People said our pizza wasn’t good enough, so we changed everything about it. But we weren’t going to call it ‘new and improved’ and expect that to break through. We had to blow up the bridge.”

As a marketing veteran himself, Doyle immediately understood how arresting the approach would be, but he couldn’t help but hear alarm bells. “You’re never supposed to repeat the negative,” Doyle said. “We were going to repeat the negative — loudly. As it turns out, it’s what got people’s attention.”

What type of attention though? Initially, late-night talk show hosts and stand-up comedians remarked on the elephant in the room: Why would a company issue such a public mea culpa? Was this brilliant or bone-headed? “It’s like that old saying, ‘There is no one so brave as he who has nothing to lose,'” says Robert Passikoff, president of research firm Brand Keys. “Remember, they weren’t poisoning people, but taste was the one glitch on the radar. And being upfront really proved meaningful.”

Indeed. Domino’s sales in the first quarter soared 14.3 percent, and researcher Millward Brown later found that the ads were among the most effective they’d tested in years. At a time when many restaurants continued to struggle in the sagging economy, Domino’s followed its Q1 jump with a fat 8.8 percent sales increase in Q2.

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