Papa John's Pizza Continues It's Cheesy Ad Approach

Papa John’s Pizza has introduced a new TV campaign that appears to be intended to offset some of the negative publicity and I suspect a decline in sales as a result of the actions of its founder whose name is reflected in the brand and around whom it has been built as the face and spokesperson. Ironically, the replacement campaign is as seriously flawed as were those that featured the founder.

 Trotting out “real” employees and franchisees whose names are scrolled through the Papa John’s logo at the end of the spot in place of John’s is merely acknowledging the damage that was created by over-relying on Schnatter’s image and reputation. Featuring the faces of actual employees is almost a pity plea. Why should customers care about these people? Offer a better product at a better price – or better yet, support the previously unsubstantiated claim of better ingredients.

 Full disclosure here, my dislike for John Schnatter’s ad performance and what I have learned about him over the years through his publicity has kept me away from ever experiencing the product. I’ve found his communication style to be too slick, glib or self-absorbed for my taste.

The reasons for his well-publicized exit from the company are not my concern here. Instead, I see the pizza chain’s current dilemma as one of its own making. Over the years, I’ve spoken out and written often of my disdain for ad campaigns that are built around the founder. Typically, the founder/CEO  spokesperson lacks the talent, as did Schnatter, to deliver a believable message beyond “I care a lot about my business.”

Inside the ad business, the use of a founder as spokesperson is considered by many to be a function of agency/marketing department inability to generate an acceptable concept. “When in doubt, propose the customers would LOVE to hear from the boss.” Since these people are not professional spokespeople, they’re often urged to “just be yourself in front of the camera.” This generally results in ads that come off as folksy, quirky, or just plain odd. Because founders are justifiably proud of their accomplishments and few people are willing to admit “the Emperor has no clothes” they’re flattered into believing no one can deliver the message more convincingly. I might also ad, secretly among many marketing people, these campaigns are roundly mocked as lazy efforts on the part of the marketing staff/agency.

Papa John’s will eventually face one of two alternatives. 1. Struggle for a few years until Schnatter is a faded memory; 2. Seize the occasion to refresh the brand entirely and perhaps severe the tie with the damaged name entirely.