After stumbling into criticism for trying to tap into Tuesday’s presidential debate, Pizza Hut has pulled its offer of free pizza for life to anyone who asked “sausage or pepperoni?” at the town hall, a move marketing experts said helped clarify just how far a restaurant brand can take its marketing.
Rather than award the pizza to a questioner of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney at the town hall, Pizza Hut said in a press release that the question will be posed online Tuesday at its Pizza Party microsite. The site would then randomly choose one voter and reward them with "free pizza for life."
Kurt Kane, chief marketing officer for Dallas-based Pizza Hut, in a statement acknowledged that the original offer created what he understatedly called “buzz.” The offer was issued Oct. 9 and was actually an award of one pizza per week for 30 years, or $15,600, to anyone who asked the question during the live debate.
"We’re no longer asking a few hundred attendees at the town hall presidential debate on Oct. 16 to pose the question, rather, we’re bringing the question — sausage or pepperoni? — to millions of Americans" Kane said of Pizza Hut's decision to change the contest.
In the fast-changing world of restaurant marketing, Pizza Hut may have just helped other brands find out how far a brand can go, marketing experts said Monday.
“As social media and brand interactions change, we move away from 'the old way,' where a company would just make a few ads and run them and let P.R people handle the traditional news outlets,” said Charlie Hopper, a principal in the Young & Laramore agency in Indianapolis, Ind., in an emailed statement. “Now, of course, we all know marketers are constantly trying to find ways to get people to interact voluntarily with their brand…. But there's a line you can cross, where you're interfering unnecessarily with really crucial national events. Pizza Hut just helped us define that line."
Ridicule of Pizza Hut’s move had come from late-night television comedians and a wide variety of publications and online news sites. Andrew McCarthy at Slate.com wrote that between presidential debate Big Bird mentions and Pizza Hut’s promotion, “We’re officially a boxers-or-briefs question and a rose ceremony away from this race devolving into some sort of bizarre episode of ‘The Bachelor.’”
Laura L. Martin, a partner with the Results Thru Strategy consultancy who specializes in marketing, branding, research and social media, said, “There’s the old adage that no publicity is bad publicity, so they certainly have gotten a lot of mileage out of [the promotion] that they ordinarily wouldn’t have.”
Martin added that Pizza Hut’s creativity has earned admiration, but the timing may have been unfortunate. “This is a time that our industry needs to stand tall against quite a few issues that we are facing with the government,” she said, citing menu labeling and soda bans. “We need to make sure we are being taken seriously. Inserting ourselves into the governmental process with humor might not be the best foot forward for the industry as whole.”
Ad Age commented Monday that “in short, there was an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the stunt, but at the same time, Pizza Hut managed to garner a wealth of press in the span of a few days.”
Under the new Pizza Hut rules, those signing up at the Pizza Party microsite leave their email address and then get free Stuffed Pizza Rollers with their ensuing online order.
That move is wise, Martin added. “They’ve gotten enormous exposure, and they’ve been able to really leverage it in a way that works to their advantage,” she said. “That’s pretty shrewd.”
Pizza Hut has been able to gets its promotion broadcast widely in a season when political advertising has sent the cost of airtime skyrocketing, Martin noted. “Media gets completely locked up,” she said. “And if there is any availability, it’s extremely expensive. So restaurant marketers have to look for some alternative ways” to get messages out.
Pizza Hut, a division of Yum! Brands Inc., has nearly 10,000 restaurants in more than 90 nations.