In 1988, when I got my first job offer to work for Pizza Hut corporate in Louisville, I was introduced to the complexities of the pizza wars.  It is amazing to see that the members of the Pizza Hut team of 1988 are now at CMO level positions in at least seven major restaurant chains.  Outside marketing, the influence of COO Pat Williamson left a mark in my mind as a visionary who put guest experience first. Pizza Hut, as part of the YUM family, always took pride in being most marketing intelligent. If any brand could out market its competition, Pizza Hut could.

One of my corporate career’s last stops was at Papa John’s in Louisville, KY where I got to work Papa John’s founder of John Schnatter. John’s strength is his simplicity and focus on delivering an uncompromised product to customers.  When the guy whose name is on the box is the best pizza maker in the company and is focused on nothing but quality, the brand gets “better ingredients better pizza” rooted in its trenches.

Since starting consulting, I’ve had the opportunity work with Domino’s to assist them with their database and online strategy.  Domino’s to me is completely different than the other two pizza brands, as they are focused on delivery first.  In simple layman’s terms, if it cannot be delivered efficiently, Domino’s doesn’t touch it.  No wonder they came up with hot delivery bags and the 30 minute guarantee (which is even used outside the U.S. by Domino’s and their key competition).

I’ve also had the chance to learn from Sarah Grover of California Pizza Kitchen at MEG meetings. Sarah brings an added dimension to the industry as she, along with being a Marketing and Operations visionary, also focuses on harnessing operations to best offer an upscale pizza experience. 

In addition to these big name pizza brands I have consulted with smaller regional pizza chains around the country. With all this diversity of talent, expertise and vision, I expected the pizza category to be quite differentiated when I looked at 2009 Leaky bucket research results.  I was surprised to find out that the pizza category is becoming more undifferentiated.  The big three in the pizza category, led by Pizza Hut, drives the price points for most brands, hence price/value is at par for all brands, which suggests that in the mind of the consumer, no “one” brand has a better price/value proposition than the others. Even though half the category is composed of regional and local players, in the broadest sense, the category seems to be following the big three. Collectively, food and menu are the biggest drivers of non-positive future visit intent. (To review the leaky Bucket information visit http://www.zenmango.com/leakybucket.html.)

As I sit back, I think that if I were king of the pizza category for a moment, this is the direction I would move category to:

  1. Pizza Hut:  Continue to focus on great pizza variety at a good value.  If a book is ever written on alternate forms of pizza, Pizza Hut would be in best position to write that.  Bring more new news to the category, Pizza Hut.
  2. Papa John’s:  Go back to the “Better ingredients and better pizza” (BIBP) strategy. I recognize that the BIBP strategy may be a decade old, and the rest of your competitive brands have reduced the gap on better ingredients, but I feel there are considerable rewards to be reaped by going back to BIBP.  Do what you do best, raise the bar Papa John’s.  John, if you are listening, America needs to you make our pizzas better.  We are waiting as “Better” is never a destination, it is an ongoing journey.
  3. Domino’s: Stop trying to imitate Pizza Hut and offer new products that do not work.  What was that pizza-pasta combo thing?  Aside from being a great source for a carb-overload, that is not what we need you for.  Go back to being the leader in delivery.  Focus on delivery and be America’s Pizza Delivery Company by offering great and speedy value consistently, every time.
  4. Regional chains:  Try to free yourself from the shadow of the big three. Get to know your local tastes. Own regional events.
  5. Local pizza places: Offer an experience that the big three cannot offer. Get personal and serve one customer at a time.  Be the “Cheers” of the neighborhood, where you know the name of every customer.

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