Betting on ‘Better’: 5 Questions With Papa John’s CMO Brandon Rhoten


Papa John's pizza

Papa John’s is heading into the thick of the NFL season and the holiday season with a new CMO at the helm of the brand and a determination to gain more consumer recognition of the quality of its food as a way to differentiate Papa John’s from rivals Pizza Hut and Domino’s.

“Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” has been Papa John’s slogan for a long time. But Brandon Rhoten, who took over the Papa John’s CMO job in May from the same position at Wendy’s, believes that the brand needs to get much more mileage out of that positioning than it has.

Rhoten was brought on board with the goal of “enhancing Papa John’s advertising, digital marketing and social media efforts with a focus on quality. Additionally, Rhoten will explore new ways to amplify Papa John’s strong international growth.”

On the eve of his hiring, Papa John’s was named Pizza Brand of the Year in the 2017 Harris Poll Equitend Rankings (toppling Pizza Hut) and announced that 60 percent of Papa John’s domestic sales originate from digital channels. Still, Rhoten says, there’s work to do.

“I’m not sure our brand has gotten credit for it despite our tagline,” Rhoten told brandchannel. “We’re going to work on a transition to be more about ‘better’ and less about offers.”

These days, much of the talk about the brand involves CEO John Schnatter’s comment in an earnings call that pizza sales and thus the company’s earnings were dinged by the national anthem controversy in the NFL, of which Papa John’s is the official pizza sponsor—and which is the brand’s most important advertising vehicle.

Brandon Rhoten - Papa John's chief marketing officerWe spoke with Rhoten (right) about betting on “better,” the NFL and the new segment of the QSR industry that he’s now inhabiting:

You’ve had a few months to settle into your new role. What vision have you formed for the Papa John’s brand?

I’ve been here a few months now and worked with the team to do a bit of research to understand the opportunities. Coming on, I had the sense of a brand that had been around for a while and is known for being “better” and for quality; it had a founder who was still in the picture; and it’s a brand that is the underdog in the industry—all those things felt really good to me. The fact that the majority of our business is actually conducted online was a huge opportunity.

So I talked with franchisees and understood what the landscape for pizza was and it became clear that moving to something a bit more aggressive in marketing would provide huge potential for growth for the brand. Not just the typical brand positioning stuff or creative partners or media allocation—it’s the chance to take advantage of the fact that more than 60% of our business is online.

How are you doing that?

Well, we have new partners in Twitter and Facebook and Google, and a new creative partner in Laundry Service. We’re getting ready to make a bunch of investments in technology, CRM and on the back side, things like re-targeting. Pulling people through the funnel continuously instead of just focusing on awareness tactics like targeted rating points on TV. We’re moving past that and into a model where we can focus on conversions, retention and lifetime value of a customer, and direct-response marketing—all sorts of exciting new stuff.

You’ve become the first national pizza brand to launch Facebook Instant Ordering. How is that different from what Domino’s is doing on Facebook?

They use a bot. Ours is actually integrated into Facebook and Facebook properties. If you’re on a Facebook-branded page you can hit “order.” It’s actually integrated into the experience.

They’ve decided to focus all their attention on distribution and all the technologies associated with that. They’ve re-inveested in that over the last few years. For them the pizza is just a a component to deliver. I think that’s awesome. Domino’s has been very focused on the idea that they’re all about distribution and innovations associated with it.

The potential for Papa John’s is to own quality and quality product. It actually helps us if we’re not trying to compete with them and out-gadget them.We will have better technologies as we develop our infrastructure. We hired a new CIO about a year ago. We’ll not only catch up, we’ll eventually get past them in technology, but that’s really not our focus. It’s about “better” and better products. Delivery is a mechanism for getting you amazing pizza; for them delivery is kind of the communication.

Grab a slice before they all disappear…

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What is Papa John’s doing to make the pizza better and communicate that message?

Fresh dough; we don’t freeze dough. Our tomato sauce is canned fresh in the field so it tastes just like you picked the tomato off the vine. It’s not made into a paste and dehydrated. The meats don’t have fillers. There are no artificial flavors or colors in Papa John’s pizzas. People don’t know this stuff is true.

Look at our clean label initiatives. It’s without a doubt the most better-focused pizza out there and directly fits what people are asking for out there today, not to have a bunch of dyes and artificial colors and flavors. We’ve been doing that for years; we just haven’t talked about it. It’s not dissimilar to Wendy’s, where we had fresh-not-frozen beef for decades but hadn’t talked about it much until lately.

Our opportunity at Papa John’s is to express what is better about our pizza. And we’re making sure that in everything we do from here on out, “better” is part of the conversation. Is this improving the product from a quality and label standpoint?

We are pursuing new creative opportunities, with the agency that has worked with Beats, Apple and Jordan brands for Nike. They make sure our differentiation is clear. That’s a big part of what we’re doing. And we’ve developed a brand personality and “why” that we’ll use to drive all activities going forward to make sure enough equity messaging is reaching the right people. We’re doing a lot right now to make sure that happens.

How will John Schnatter’s comments about the NFL anthem controversy hurting sales pan out?

In an earnings call we discuss what’s affecting our business. His comments were essentially that the investment isn’t giving us the return that we’d hoped and we’d have to look at other investments. A lot of that is pre-planned in a relationship with the NFL… We’re unlike our competitors in that we’re the official pizza sponsor. We rely on the NFL. But ultimately his remarks weren’t intended to be political.

Update: A day after this interview was published, Papa John’s clarified the NFL comments on Twitter —

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