By: Andrew Hendricks
Just a few years ago Domino's took a big risk with their brand and did something businesses rarely do unless they're forced: they pulled a mea culpa. Stopping just short of saying their pizza was gross, a Domino's executive took to the television and told the America they were dramatically changing their recipe from the ground up. The advertising campaign for their new strategy of more-edible food had a subtext of “please stop making fun of us,” however as people tried their new recipe (and even if you hated Domino's, you had to at least try the new Domino's once, right?) the consensus on the new recipe seemed to be “not bad.” “Definitely better.” Perhaps even... good? Years out, the question is obvious: “did such a risky strategy pay off?”
Domino's Pizza is the quintessential “delivery pizza” brand of America and has been for decades. Pizza Hut may be the top dog, however Domino's has always managed to beat the restaurant chain on price by committing more fully to faster, lower-quality pizza with a greater emphasis on delivery.
By sales, the third in line for being the “Pizza King” is Papa John's, however Domino's was also losing business to Little Caesar’s as the real “cheap pizza” competitor. With a marketing campaign oriented towards their “hot-n-ready” pre-made pizzas (which high school me really appreciated), and less-than-national franchisement, Little Caesar’s was less of a threat to the Domino's brand than Papa John's which touted their slogan: “Better ingredients, Better Pizza, Papa John's.” It also must have been frightening to Domino's when in 2009 the year before their new recipe rolled out Papa John's began opening new restaurants at a rapid pace attempting to edge out Domino's. They succeeded too, as Papa John's stock has seen a 200% increase since 2009
“Get the door, it's Domino's” was the slogan of Domino's for the better part of a decade. Any of us with dogs whose ears were sensitive television where someone rings a doorbell or knocks on a door will recall how frustrating this period in Domino's history was. It was a successful campaign in raising awareness in America that if you want Pizza brought to your doorstep (and for your dogs to go crazy), Domino's was your man. But for the longest time these commercials and their marketing strategy de=emphasized the quality of their pizza along with a skittishness to make comparisons (understandably so) with their pizza to other chains. It was a running joke that Domino's crust tasted like cardboard and their cheese merited air quotes. “Cheese.”
“What's the problem, really?” you might ask. We all know it's supposed to be cheaper rather than “good” pizza. It's not like McDonald's or Jack in the Box is competing with In-N-Out or Five Guys in quality and they are still making money hand-over-first by being the time-saving proprietors of “acceptable” burgers. But even though Domino's had market-share comparable to McDonald's, they weren't winning on the price game against Little Caesar’s ($5 for a medium pizza is a heck of a deal to a teenager, whatever it tastes like), Pizza Hut had a better foothold internationally, and Papa John's slogan which seemed to directly insult Domino's in every time it was said in their ever-increasing number of commercials.
The Consumerist made this same point after posting an article on the changes made. Writer Phil Villarreal speculated at the time that “Really, it’s almost certain that the changes will be for the better because there’s so much room for improvement. Whether or not Domino’s will be able to hang with rival Papa John’s is the real issue”
On the surprisingly honest new Domino's strategy, an article on Brandchannel.com noted at the time: “Here's something you don't see very often: a brand outright admitting that its product is crummy. Or, at least, that its product was crummy.”
Yet those of us who are more cynical could easily imagine an alternative history where Domino's, instead of increasing the quality of their pizzas, reduced it even further to make up for lagging sales. Or alternatively someone like the former CEO of Grey Goose advising Domino's to arbitrarily raise their prices with a glitzy new marketing campaign. Make the consumer think your product is better because you say it is. Don't actually change anything, but since it's more expensive, people will value it more!
While that worked for Grey Goose Vodka, the Domino's brand made the smart decision by remembering what they are in business doing—providing pizza. So they went back to square one, admitted failure, and then began re-branding and aggressively advertising their new pizza. It is a strategy that still makes us chuckle when we think about the day when Domino's admitted to being just awful pizza, but now, nearly four years since the change, the data is in and as Domino's opens their 11,000th store and posts record profits.
Domino's learned early what companies are catching on to today with our “viral” web and social media culture. At the time of the change, people took to social media of all kind to talk about it and see if others shared their opinion on the new recipe. Reddit, a news-aggregate website that advertisers salivate over penetrating was equally abuzz on the subject.
In a Reddit thread on the pizza change, one commenter posted: “I really respected them for coming out and saying “You know what? Our Pizza sucks a** and you know that and it's about time we did something about that. We've done our research, drastically changed our recipe, and it's awesome now."
The lesson is clear: honesty can be very good for a business and a brand, but only if you actually fix the problem!