NFL blame games and Nazi pizzas put a sour topping on Papa John's digital plans

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan November 6, 2017
Papa John's is doing some interesting digital work, but some bad PR decisions have overshadowed progress. No-one wants to be the Nazi pizza-of-choice, do they?

When pizza chain Papa John’s turned in disappointing quarterly numbers last week, founder and CEO John Schnatter knew where he was going to put the blame  - on the NFL.

In the process, he sparked a lot of PR controversy, culminating in the fast food giant having to publicy distance itself from being named as the nation's favorite pizza firm for Nazis and White Supremacists.

It must have seemed a sensible enough idea before hand. Papa John’s is the official pizza sponsor of the NFL and as such its brand is closely tied to the league.

But the recent controversy surrounding league players ‘taking the knee’ when the US national anthem is played has had an impact. As such Schnatter ended up channeling President Trump in his criticism of the NFL:

NFL leadership has hurt Papa John's shareholders. Let me explain. The NFL has been a long and valued partner over the years, but we are certainly disappointed that the NFL and its leadership did not resolve the ongoing situation to the satisfaction of all parties long ago. This should have been nipped in the bud a year-and-a-half ago. Like many sponsors, we are in contact with NFL, and once the issue's resolved between the players and the owners, we are optimistic that the NFL's best years are ahead. For good or bad, leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership.

Cue PR debacle that drowned out some impressive updates on the firm’s digital transformation progress, as outlined by President and Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie.

We have identified a cohesive customer-centered technology strategy that will continue to differentiate our brand, while delivering a better digital experience. In 2018, our Chief Information and Digital Officer (CIDO) Mike Nettles and his team will be making investments to better serve our digital customers, engaging with them in a more personalized meaningful way, no longer content to just deliver a superior digital experience with our own website and mobile channels. We will take the Papa John's experience to a number of other non-native channels to engage both existing and potential restaurant customers.

Behind all of this investment will be a complete redesign of our entire digital platform and digital solutions capabilities, leveraging enhanced data analytics and insights to ensure our industry-leading platforms are sustainable, efficient and effective for many years to come.


For his part, Nettles wants to keep his powder dry when it comes to detailing future digital directions - and given the efforts being put in by arch-rival Domino’s on this front, protecting presumed competitive differentiators is probably sound thinking. But there are some broad trends he will talk about:

We won't be talking much about specific features. But from a consumer perspective, we are very well understanding how much they've embraced mobile technology, how much that's actually impacted our digital mix, and what the differences are in mobile technology versus maybe more traditional web and browser-based technology.

So because of that because of the insights we've been able to gain out of that, we're really driving the system harder to connecting to as many other environments and channels where a consumer might actually be thinking about food, thinking about meal choices, so that it makes it simpler, faster, easier and far more effective for them to be able to engage our brand and order the pizza from us accordingly.

That means enabling consumer engagement and transactions via channnels not necessarily owned and managed by Papa John’s, such as the recently introduced Facebook Instant Ordering feature. Expect more of that, says Nettles:

Several other channels…are on the way. You are going to see the ability for [customers] to jump right into ordering something without having to leave somebody else's ecosystem. We're excited about that, and you'll see more about that coming in the year to come.

There will also be some essential ‘plumbing’ upgrades to the Papa John tech infrastructure, he adds:

We're also well aware of the performance of our systems, and we're constantly making significant investments in improving the speed and the overall accuracy of those systems all the way down into operation so that [we] actually have modernized technology to really up our quality game. That's a big part of what makes Papa John's better, is the quality of our product, and we want to be able to empower our operations teams with the right tools and technologies to deliver on that promise accordingly.

A key goal here is to get to a better position to attract new customers and to be able to provide one-to-one personalized messaging and marketing, Ritchie adds:

We know it's critical that we invest in the future marketing, which for our business, is clearly digital and e-commerce.

To that end, Papa John’s has now appointed a “digital-first agency of record” to handle all creative activities, regardless of channel. That agency is Laundry Service, which is . ranked on the Ad Age 2017 A-List, and has a client list that includes Apple, Nike and T-Mobile. Ritchie says there’s a clear rationale here:

Consumers' behaviors are evolving where they're absorbing media. So we think that we have made a very good strategic decision with the selection of an agency-like Laundry Service that has got a digital focus. Clearly, we have brought on a CMO with a heavy digital skew that understands that consumer and understands that space. So the way that we market in the future will be different than in the way we have marketed historically.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to one thing, says Ritchie:

Our customers deserve a better pizza experience than they can get anywhere else.

Just not Nazis and White Supremacists, presumably…

My take

Leaving aside the crass attempts to piggyback blame on the NFL, there’s some interesting digital investment going on at Papa John’s, even if the firms is holding its cards closer to its chest than the likes of Domino’s or others in the fast food game, like McDonald’s. Watch this space.

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