Maybe the Pizza Was Terrible: A Marketing Rant

papa john's contest reveal

I receive a bunch of journals in the mail (which I don’t recall ever signing up for) and countless feeds of blogs and more journals everyday. I’m pretty bad at keeping up with all of them. However, every once and a while, I clear out the “Read Later” bin and usually find a few interesting nuggets. One of the mysterious journals that shows up every month is OMMA (The Magazine of Online Media, Marketing, and Advertising). This time around I was catching up on the November issue (read the whole thing online here). Of all the articles in this issue, one stuck with me and the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. It was entitled “Full Circle” and told the story of how pizza chain Papa John’s used “crowdsourcing” to pick its next “specialty” pizza (read the article here).

I know…remarkably unique concept, right? Here’s what the conversation might have looked like when this idea came to life. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Marketer 1: “Why don’t we have some sort of contest where people tell us what the next pizza should be?”

Marketer 2: “Yes, and they should submit the ideas on Facebook because social media is all the rage.”

Marketer 1: “Of course…what else can we do though?”

Marketer 3: “Well, we should have people vote on which is their favorite.”

Marketer 1: “Yes, why didn’t I think of that? Has anyone done that before?”

Marketer 3: “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Marketer 2: “Indeed…have the public pick the next version of our product. It’ll be huge. A marketing first…Ad Age will love this…”

Okay, so maybe it didn’t go quite like this, but you get the idea. To their credit, Papa John’s didn’t pick the winner based on the number of votes for each pizza, they determined the winner based on actual sales. 12,000 submissions were made and the company narrowed  that down to 3 finalists (with the help of “celebrity” judges of course). The winner gets $10,000 and a lifetime supply of pizza (sort of). Here’s the big hook in the article:

“In a lucky break for the pizza chain, three distinctly different people emerged as finalists. Two of the contenders had youth, sizzle and sex appeal on their side. The third had good intentions and people sense. Guess which one won.”

Gee…I wonder.

Pause for a moment and consider the finalists and their entries. Read this paragraph carefully, as it’s the most important to determining the winner in my opinion:

“Blair Dial, 29, a blonde marketing pro from the Chicago area, pushed her pizza, ‘The Big Bonanza,’ heavy on bacon and barbecue sauce. Another, 22-year-old volunteer firefighter Kendra Chapman with flaming red hair, hailed from Georgia. Her pizza, ‘Workin’ Fire’ boasted spicy meat and peppers. Then there was Barbara Hyman, 51, a tanned brunette holistic healer from Los Angeles, who immediately pledged to donate $1,000 to the National Wildlife Federation if she won. Her chicken-and-ham pizza was called ‘Cheesy Chicken Cordon Bleu.'”

I know, you’re probably thinking the “blonde marketing pro” took this contest hands down. Ah ha! A twist. She didn’t. I’m sure you’re totally shocked.

The three finalists were given $1,000 for promotion (and you think your budgets are small) and had a month to drum up some noise before the pizza’s hit the real Papa John’s menu. Implied in this, of course, is that the contestants would use social media to promote their pizzas. It wasn’t a requirement, but it’s what all the kids are doing these days. In fact, Papa John’s had this to say after the contest: “We were surprised and excited by the ways the finalists used social media to execute three classic positioning approaches,” says Jim Ensign, Papa John’s vice president of digital marketing.

And so it began, each pizza had a dedicated Facebook page and Papa John’s tracked the number of “Likes” for each. The results of the social media efforts went like this according to the OMMA article:

“Based on social media indicators, the barbecue pizza should have won by a landslide. Dial posted on her pizza’s Facebook page one to three times a day, with games, contests and jokes. By Aug. 12, her site had more than 1,000 ‘likes,’ while her rivals had only about 500 each. On the company site, 1,351 people voted for her pizza by the end of August.

After that came Chapman, the firefighter, who anchored her page with a striking photo of herself. She posted about every other day and at month’s end 1,005 users voted for her pizza on the Papa John site.

Hyman, in contrast, seemed to use Facebook only as a back-up communication tool; in August she posted only three times. But she included her charity’s name in her Facebook title, calling it ‘Papa John’s Cheesy Chicken Cordon Bleu for Gulf Coast Animals.’ Her pizza got 928 votes on the Papa page.”

Now, the Papa John’s people were smart enough to not leave the future of their menu to the whims of the Internet unlike many others have done in the past (I’m looking at you Kraft for your “iSnack 2.0” debacle). The winner of the contest wasn’t judged by the number of Likes or votes, but rather by which pizza sold the most.

The article goes on to talk in more detail about the tactics that each person used to promote their pizza. “The blonde” and the one with the “flaming red hair” relied on social media almost exclusively, while the “brunette” focused on more offline, traditional approaches (note: why the hair color of each contestant is relevant to the article is never explained).

And, to end your torture, the winner was the “brunette holistic healer.” Her pizza sales accounted for 45% of the total (31% for the redhead, 23% for the blonde).

Papa John’s explained why she won this way: “In hindsight, Ensign says Hyman’s site, pitch and pizza had two powerful hooks. One, the Cordon Bleu name was familiar and easy to remember; two, her cause was framed as a way to help animals harmed in the BP oil spill, which had a timely, emotional pull.”

And also this:

“While Facebook contributed somewhat to the success of the winner, it was an even bigger factor as a way for us [to use the contest to] engage people in our entire menu of specialty pizzas,” says Ensign. “Social media will continue to be a growing part of our marketing strategy.”

Okay…now onto the point of this post and an explanation of the title. This entire case should teach you one lesson. In trying to come up with an explanation for why one person won versus another, there are about five different explanations in the article from “emotional pull” to “in-person interactions” to “cause marketing” and everything else in between. What’s missing, however, is the most logical and simplest explanation (and it has nothing to do with hair color).

I’m a big subscriber to the principle of Occam’s Razor. You’ve probably heard it before, but for review, this principle states that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. It’s the concept behind the quote: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.

In my opinion, Papa John’s is looking for zebras here. Why did the “Cheesy Chicken Cordon Bleu” pizza best its rivals? Simple. The other two pizzas sound vile. One featured “spicy meat and peppers” and the other was described as “heavy on bacon and barbecue sauce.” The “Cordon Bleu” pizza, on the other hand, features a dish that every American has had either in a Hot Pocket or as part the main course at a wedding reception. It’s something we’re familiar with and don’t find objectionable, so sure, I’ll try that pizza if I must…certainly over the “bacon and barbecue sauce” pizza.

As you’re devising your next big marketing plan or struggling to figure out the reason why your last big one was a success or failure, look at the obvious explanations first. Don’t try to impress anyone by using terms like “engagement” or with reams of spreadsheets and stacks of binders. Look for the simplest answer. When you devise a new product or program, ask yourself, “Is anyone REALLY going to do this/buy this?” Get unimpressed with your idea for a second and ask yourself that tough question. If you hesitate, the answer is probably no and it’s time to find a new idea.

So, next time you need to explain why a program worked or didn’t, remember this article and think to yourself: “Maybe the pizza was terrible.”

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3 thoughts on “Maybe the Pizza Was Terrible: A Marketing Rant

  1. Anonymous

    Jonathan: your pizza story takes the cake (sorry about the mixed metaphor) – all too often we forget that the customer experience, while shaped by engagement, marcomm efforts, social media, etc., is at its core chiefly about the product experience. New Coke, the Edsel, Web 1.0 all had great spend, ads, and glitz behind it, and…well, you know the rest. Adding social media to the mix doesn’t change the fact that if the experience sucks (or tastes bad or even sounds bad), ultimately so will its prospects for success.
    Thanks for your insights on this!


  2. Focusing on a charity is a critical advantage. The YouTube campaigns I’ve seen that led with charity/environment/cause usually got more support (even when the charitable donation is a “rounding error” on the campaign. So I wouldn’t discount that either. Here’s the real “control”: put their faces next to different pizzas and see if it was just a beauty contest.

  3. Admin

    You forgot to mention that Barbara Hyman NEVER followed through on her pledge to donate the $1,000.00. She bought a Camper Van, went traipsing around the US & eventually got arrested in Texas. Furthermore, here is the actual story about the “natural healer.”:
    The hawkers of “Quantum Theta Energy Healing” Barbara & James Hyman purport to help maintain or restore health & vigor. As a trained scientist with both a Masters degree & PhD it disturbs me to see crackpot, pseudoscientific mind-mush & outright lies used to promote these products to consumers whose lack of scientific training leaves them unprotected from this exploitation. This information is directed primarily to those who are concerned about their health, but who lack the technical background to distinguish science from pseudoscience when the two are closely intertwined. The fact is that none of these views has any significant support in the scientific communities of medicine, psychology, psychiatry, chemistry, biochemistry, or physiology, nor are they even considered worthy of debate. The only places you are likely to see these views advocated are in literature (& on Web sites) intended to promote the sale of these products to consumers in the notoriously credulous “alternative” health market

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