Papa John’s International said Friday that it is searching for a new national advertising agency of record, as ZGroup, a division of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based Zimmerman Advertising has chosen not to defend the account now up for agency review.

“As the recognized industry leader in customer happiness and the leader in digital ordering, Papa John’s has built an incredible amount of momentum over the past few years,” John Schnatter, Papa John’s founder and chief executive, said in a statement. “We feel the timing is right to seek an agency partner that can capitalize on that momentum and help advance our brand to the next level through fresh thinking, brand messaging and more innovative, integrated marketing.”

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Zimmerman held the Papa John’s account for many years, and former Papa John’s chief marketing officer Andrew Varga left the Louisville, Ky.-based chain this past March to become Zimmerman’s president.

The review ostensibly is not a response to negative sales or ineffective marketing, as Papa John’s officials routinely credit marketing initiatives like the long-held practice of including Schnatter in commercials, the brand’s sponsorship of the National Football League, and digital ordering platforms like the Papa Rewards loyalty club for the chain’s success. A review of a brand’s creative agency commonly follows the hiring of a new marketing leader, and Papa John’s named former Arby’s senior vice president Bob Kraut as the new chief marketing officer for the pizza chain on Oct. 10.

Launching an agency review now shows that Papa John’s is looking to reinvest in its branding from a position of strength and perhaps widen its lead on some marketing strategies, said Arjun Sen, president and founder of Centennial, Colo.-based brand strategy firm Zen Mango.

“I heard about the agency search, and I was very excited: Not too many brands invest in enhancing the brand when things are going great,” Sen said. “This is the opposite of what Domino’s did years ago, when they saw their core equity eroding and jumped into new branding. This is Papa John’s investing in the brand and an effort to go from great to greater.”

He noted that the four major pizza chains have been trying to consolidate their positions in the marketplace further, whether it is Domino’s for its delivery heritage, Pizza Hut for its signature pizzas, or Little Caesars on low price points.

“Papa John’s gave us a few things: a focus on quality, without which the category might have gone in a fast-food direction, and online ordering after that,” Sen said. “The pizza category from time to time goes into complete price war mode, and they lose direction. I would be excited that a brand like Papa John’s reinvents itself now, because it tells me they’re looking at more than a price war.”

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For the Sept. 29-ended third quarter, domestic same-store sales for Papa John’s rose 5.1 percent at company-owned restaurants and 0.6 percent at franchised locations.

Participating in his first earnings call with Papa John’s on Nov. 6, Kraut remarked that the chain’s marketing situation was “extremely healthy” given Papa John’s long-term positioning of “better ingredients, better pizza,” its top ranking in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, and its lead in digital ordering, which produces about 45 percent of sales.

“It’s a great place for me to be kind of coming in and trying to take the marketing effort to the next level,” Kraut said, “and I think what you can expect from me is really sharpening the focus in terms of resources and commitment of resources.”

He added that he would seek to take advantage of Papa John’s customers’ growing use of digital and social media, “which for us is I think a pretty quick pivot point, since we’re already well-established in those areas.”

Also, the chain’s multiyear partnership with the NFL as the “official pizza sponsor” has been “a quite visible statement of our leadership in marketing and our coming of age as a very well-positioned, big brand that customers trust,” Kraut said.

ZenMango president Sen agreed that over the past couple of years, Papa John’s has found relevant, new ways to remind customers about the “better ingredients, better pizza” positioning.

“The core of the creative has remained the same all these years, but it hasn’t become boring,” Sen said. “There’s no hotter property in the NFL this year than [Papa John’s spokesman and franchisee] Peyton Manning. Papa John’s gives us more relevant ways of getting the same message to us.”

As such, much of the content of the chain’s advertising — focused on Schnatter, the quality story and football — likely will not change much, Sen speculated. The brand’s talk of capitalizing on momentum in its marketing does not necessarily mean Papa John’s is looking for a giant agency as its next partner, either, Sen said.

“It’s no longer the size of the agency that matters,” he said. “All these boutique agencies out there can give the same kind of boost different brands need. Papa John’s is trying to find who is best-suited to take them to that next level.”

Sen worked at Papa John’s International as vice president of marketing and operations services from 1997 to 2001. He does not consult for the brand through his ZenMango firm.

Papa John’s operates or franchises approximately 4,300 restaurants in the United States and 35 foreign markets.

Contact Mark Brandau at
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