Every issue of Food & Drink since Summer of 2011 has contained one of my columns. Here’s the latest one.
Of the pizza chains near our house, my wife and I have a clear favorite—it’s relatively big (or seems like it is), its operations seem dependable, its product is consistent, it has a professional-looking logo and graphics package. Basically, the place offers a nice pie and a decent process getting it. In fact, we prefer this pizza to other chains’, and on some nights, we prefer it to the local guys’ pizzas, too. I like supporting local businesses, but sometimes you just want pizza from a well-run franchised operation. Ya know?
All of which leads me to wonder: Why wouldn’t this be the dominant chain? Their product is arguably better, and they rarely fumble an order.
I think the problem is that they aren’t presenting a clear brand. Not their advertising—I think their TV ads have problems, but it’s bigger than that. I don’t think anyone understands who they are. It’s not that they’re doing something wrong; they just don’t do anything distinctively right.
That’s the trouble. Unless you have managed to accidentally turn yourself into a fan (like I have), there’s no reason to become one. Often I stop by to pick the pizza up (I’m not planning to reveal the name of the chain, by the way, in case you’re waiting for that) and am struck by the missed opportunities.
Everywhere I look I notice missed opportunities to define their pizza chain, to create some kind of bond or belief, to establish their brand.
The pizza box has a big logo printed on top, always obscured by a hot-glued bounceback coupon with a dull, modest offer. It always rips when we try to remove it. Missed Opportunity. On the side of the pizza box is a trite slogan that literally means nothing—some balderdash about “delicious” that doesn’t even make sense. Missed Opportunity.
Unsolicited Advice: Look what Domino’s did with their pizza boxes—they wrote and art-directed them like important communications vehicles. They’re Trojan Horse ads delivered to the door and brought unsuspectingly into the house to then amuse and entertain pizza-chewers into believing that Domino’s really has changed.
Puffery. Happy talk. Puns: “A new angle on such-and-such,” showing the angle the pizza is cut; “Fundraising with us will make you lots of dough!” They could be any pizza chain, or anybody serving something baked. There is no sense of individuality. Missed Opportunity.
Unsolicited Advice: People can’t become fiercely loyal to a place they can’t trust to be a consistent personality. It doesn’t matter what the personality is—there just has to be something to identify with. Watch Little Caesar’s battle to regain the personality it squandered when it abandoned its nineties-era “Pizza! Pizza!” campaign. That goofy voice creates a positive emotional bond.
Once a brand voice is established, people are reassured when they hear that voice in every encounter. My favorite pizza place speaks in a different voice in every medium—nothing matches. Missed Opportunity.
Unsolicited Advice: From the menu to the interior signage to its website and social feeds, just try to catch Mellow Mushroom behaving in an off-brand manner: they present everything from the perspective of mellowed, happy dude under the influence of, um, quality pizza.
Every chain thinks it needs to introduce new products all the time, to create “New News,” and that’s fine except that unfortunately, the pizza place I like, in my opinion, needs to do more work figuring out the basic, over-arching and compelling reason a customer should prefer their pizza. Missed Opportunity.
Unsolicited Advice: Yeah, sure, Pizza Hut has made their brand all about New News and driven a lot of sales with new products. But they’re in every small town in America, practically, and have a ton of media money to spend. They can afford to constantly invent and push new ideas.
What about your database? Or your not-new-product-related promotions? How are you making customers feel welcome and wanted? Are you just planning to issue more modest coupons? Missed Opportunity.
Unsolicited Advice: You have to give Papa John points for their sports tie-ins. Even subtracting their Manningesque good fortune in having one particularly high profile franchisee, they still win (I swear I’m not trying to make these sports puns; they just happen) in pre-game and game-day moments—offering a chance for a trip to the Super Bowl by sending in a video of how you celebrate when your team scores, for example.
Everywhere a customer’s eyes rest, they’re absorbing information about what kind of a place you are. No one says coupons, signage, T-shirts or in-store materials have to be boring or dumbed down, and let’s get past the generic, false-feeling positivity that I see from the chain I like. Missed Opportunity.
Unsolicited Advice: Back to Dominos—no other major chain is working as hard to rise above the old-school route of logo-and-coupon, or meaningless-pun-and-photograph-of-a-pizza-pull. Order a Domino’s and look at how everything is written and designed to engage and delight, from TV ads to the coupons that say stuff like, “Another offer that sounds too good to be true except it’s actually true.” Some smaller guys seem to have this figured out better—here’s what’s printed on Naked Pizza’s napkins: “You have something on your face. Nope. Other side. Still there. Got it. [logo]”
Have I ever run a pizza joint? No. Have I ever helped a major restaurant chain define and communicate its brand? Um, well, actually yes. My colleagues and I learned from experience that there are moments to get out of the customer’s way and help them make a decision, and other moments when it delights a customer to find the company unexpectedly revealing sensitivity, humanity, intelligence and personality.
Branding is a matter of being aware and choosy about the clues the restaurant provides to convince people that they’re giving money to a bunch of imaginative over-achievers with high standards.
I suspect that my favorite pizza chain has high standards. There’s a light of intelligence behind such a fine pie delivered consistently hot. But I’ll be darned if I can see that light clearly through the fog of missed opportunities.