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The Domino’s Effect

A look inside the ad campaign that introduced a peculiar notion: groveling as a growth strategy.

By Joe Keohane // Illustration by Gluekit

domino

IN LATE 2007 the American advertising agency Crispin Porter+Bogusky launched a campaign for Burger King called “Whopper Freakout.” Shot in grainy surveillance-camera style, the ads depicted actual Burger King customers throwing tantrums after being informed by BK counter help that there would be no more Whoppers. That the spots were

extremely unflattering to BK’s base (and indeed, to humanity) seemed not to matter. They created a buzz, reintroduced an old product to a new audience, and cemented Crispin’s reputation as the reigning rock star in its field.

But when Crispin got together with longtime client Domino’s Pizza in 2009, one thing was clear: There would be no Domino’s freakouts. Years’ worth of focus grouping suggested that while plenty of people ate Domino’s, they did so mainly because it was convenient, not because it was particularly good. The sauce tasted like ketchup, the crust was bland and weirdly pillowy, the cheese could be…unusual. “Domino’s had been getting their butts kicked on their pizza,” says Crispin group creative director Tony Calcao of the focus groups. “They’ve been around for fifty years, and one day they realized, ‘You know what? Our pizza is ranked below Chuck E. Cheese’s.’”

Michigan-based Domino’s had been reformulating its recipe since 2007 and planned to debut a new pizza in 2010 to commemorate its 50th anniversary. It fell to Crispin to devise a campaign to sell the pie. “We realized that we couldn’t just come out and say we have a brand new pizza, because no one’s going to believe Domino’s,” says Calcao. “The first thing you need to do is own up to the fact that you had to make a whole new pizza.”

Honesty, transparency and engagement—real or feigned—are all the rage in advertising right now, in part because people are cynical about corporations and in part because if you try to pull a fast one, you risk incurring the boundless wrath of the internet. So in rolling out its new pizza, Domino’s wanted to “talk to people the way they deserve to be talked to,” says company spokesman Chris Brandon. Crispin agreed, but wanted their client to take it further. How much further? Simple: Make the pizza seem unfit for canine consumption, and issue a mea culpa on a scale never before seen.

It was risky, a violation of nearly every rule of advertising, but that’s exactly what they did. In one early 2010 web spot, excerpts of which ran in TV ads, Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle appears on screen and, over ominous music, says, “There comes a time when you know you gotta make a change.” This is followed by actual focus group footage of people trashing Domino’s pizza while mortified employees look on. “It’s hard to watch,” says one. “You know what?” says a chef, “when you first hear it, it’s shocking.” Executives read comment cards that say things like, “Worst excuse for pizza I’ve ever had.” Over the next year, additional spots addressed the problem of pizzas arriving mangled in their boxes (“We’re gonna learn; we’re gonna get better,” says Doyle), the practice of using doctored pizza photos in advertisements, and the misperception that Domino’s doesn’t use real cheese. Tapping social media, it also launched pizzaturnaround.com, where fans and foes of the company could post things like, “The only good part of Domino’s pizza is the web pizza tracker.”

By the sheer magnitude of the apology, you would think that Domino’s had done something surpassingly bad—baked plastic into its crust or used an endangered bird to make sausage—but therein lies the genius of the campaign: There was no scandal to atone for, no epic collapse. Market share, stock price and revenues were all strong when the ads were launched. Competition was stiff , but the company was healthy. “Without any massive public backlash, they came out and created more drama than there actually was,” says Tor Myhren, chief creative officer at ad firm Grey New York, whose clients include Captain Morgan, DQ and the NFL.

The risk paid off. While critical reception of the new pizza has been mixed, the market has responded enthusiastically. Domino’s domestic sales jumped 14.3 percent in the first quarter of 2010, 8.8 in the second, and 11.7 in the third. From January to November, its share price nearly doubled from $8 to over $15. Meanwhile, the campaign has established Domino’s as the undisputed champ of the corporate apology, the standard by which all others will be judged. The phrase “to pull a Domino’s” has actually entered the lexicon. The campaign may be stunty, says Myrhen, and it may have alienated some old customers, “but by doing what they did they got that message out better than any other way I can think of.”

“There was a risk,” admits Calcao, “but Domino’s is brave.”

Executive editor JOE KEOHANE professes a special fondness for the pepperoni pie at Alumni Café in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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