How Papa John’s used brand personality to take a slice of the UK market

9th May 2014

Launching US brands in the UK is arguably easier than trying to do it the other way round –  just ask Tesco for proof of that. However, when that brand is big, bold and quintessentially American, and most importantly, is made synonymous by the very person who owns and runs it, what marketing stance does it take when it crosses the pond? 

This was the dilemma for Papa John’s 10 years ago, when it decided to branch its highly successful chain of pizza delivery franchises out from across the US into new global markets.

Its introduction into the UK was matched with steady if not sustained growth for several years, however the company has accelerated significantly in the last 12 months, increasing its store numbers from just over 150 to 240 nationwide in 2013, with 50 more planned through 2014.

This recent period of growth coincides with an era of more intense and innovative promotional and marketing activity in the UK too, and has seen Papa John’s wrestle more and more market share away from its nearest rivals, Pizza Hut and Domino’s; two brands that have been sat together at the head of the pizza takeaway table for 20-odd years longer than Papa’s has.

Part of its growth strategy is devoted to building a strong brand personality that UK customers can relate to. While the pizza takeaway market provides an easier route into achieving this than, say, financial services, Papa John’s has had one issue standing in its path: its enigmatic and larger-than-life owner and founder, John ‘Papa’ Schnatter.

Brand persona

While Schnatter’s achievements are not to be sniffed at (he started selling pizzas from a broom cupboard in the back of his dad’s bar in 1983 before founding Papa’s in 1983 and building a network of over 4,000 stores in the US alone) the fact that his story is essentially a rags-to-riches one, and that John’s own personality is used to front much of the company’s brand persona in the US, is not something that always translates well to the UK market:

“In the UK the major difference is that we haven’t been here as long; the awareness in the US is much higher so we have to work a bit harder in the UK to create relevance,” says Andrew Gallagher, Papa John’s UK marketing director.

“But the awareness of John is also a bit lower, and perhaps harder to convey. The US public like the Papa John story – it’s a guy who came from nothing to create a business that’s recognised around the world; it’s the American dream. The UK is probably a little more cynical. We like characters like Richard Branson and EasyJet’s Stelios Haji-Ioannou, true - but generally we don’t celebrate business success and business personalities in quite the same way. That’s a cultural difference that will always remain.

“John is in the US; he’s seen at NFL games and is out and about, whereas he’s not physically in the UK so we have to use him slightly differently. We have to position him as the person who is at the head of the business but still involved in the day-to-day stuff. Give him more of a working appearance. Having someone there who is genuinely passionate about his business is still a powerful thing here, it just has to be portrayed tactfully.”

Sporting association

Something arguably more powerful than John’s personality is his company’s association with sporting events, however. Andrew Gallagher admits that part of the success garnered from running promotions with the NFL in the US has in-turn driven UK marketing down new routes in the last 12 months, and the affiliations it has made has subsequently driven the brand’s tone of voice.

One such partnership, signed with the Football League in July last year, has been especially significant. With a major promotional campaign called ‘Score Twice, Half Price’, Andrew Gallagher and his marketing team have managed to completely tap into the football fan’s psyche, using the promotion to drive regular interaction with fans via social media and then driving them towards local Papa John’s stores as a result. It’s a perfect fit – football, social media and pizza.

“What was crucial about the football league deal was that it was a very local connection, as opposed to if we’d tied in with say, the Premier League,” Gallagher explains. “It was about local fans going to watch their hometown teams and then going to our local stores afterwards. Despite its global positioning, it was important we could develop that feeling of being part of local communities.

“It also enabled us to use social in a more playful manner, though, and that’s been great. You have to be more engaging in this space, but people are sharing and joking regularly; they also take things less seriously and you can be cheekier than say, via email campaigns. Football gives us the opportunity to develop our tone of voice to fit that market while remaining relevant, and we’re able to talk about other things than pizza while remaining central to our product, which isn’t always possible for many brands.”

Having previous worked as head of marketing at Paddy Power, it’s fair to say Gallagher has had experience in this realm. The online betting brand is known for its brand of “mischief marketing”, recently even appointing one of their marketers as “Head of Mischief”. It also chooses to regularly walk the line in terms of the shock-factor within the campaigns it runs, very often going over it. However, its position and brand philosophy is to be the brand that does that, and Gallagher argues it gets away with a lot of the things it does because people accept it as ‘tongue in cheek’.

Mischief marketing

Papa John’s is similar to Paddy Power in many respects – relatively new to a market and in need of doing something innovative in terms of marketing  to differentiate from its competitors – but at the same time, while it has been able to follow some of its ‘mischief’ through its connection with football, also has to be careful not to veer away from the global persona the brand has built up:

“Paddy Power’s ethos in terms of offering more quality betting opportunities was certainly key for them, and Papa John’s in the UK, and certainly worldwide, works towards offering a more premium product,” Gallagher adds.

“The difference is Paddy Power’s personality is built around being mischievous by is ultimately ‘anonymous’. What I mean by this is that, even though Paddy himself is a real person who works in the company and still does TV and so forth, he is never considered the face of the brand. During the Oscar Pistorious scandal, did anyone blame him directly? Whereas, Papa John has a very public personality as its leader; he is part of the brand. Therefore, the tongue in cheek style marketing isn’t quite as relevant for us as it’s not how John built his brand. The key difference is finding the balance between challenging and playful. We’re serious about what we do and genuinely believe in the quality of our product.”


Papa John's UK marketing - "Football gives us the opportunity to be more playful" 

Ultimately, aside from adhering to a considered and well-planned brand persona, customer experience is now the driving force behind Papa John’s marketing decisions. Its recent partnership with Rant & Rave means the pizza mogul will now be receiving feedback from customers via text message directly after finishing every delivery or sale. It’s a potent tool of engagement, Gallagher states, and something that will ultimately guide the business through its next phase of brand-building:

“As a business we’re diligent at measuring measurable things – how long it takes to deliver a pizza from moment of order, how hot the pizzas how, how good the toppings are – but we don’t every really ask ‘what did you think, did you like it?’ The Rant & Rave tool allows us to do this.

“It’s good to have customers tell us what they think. You always fear as a marketer when people have an open platform to voice their opinion, but it’s vital and gives great feedback. In more difficult times, everyone is having to work a little bit harder for peoples’ pounds. That means delivering the right experience, whether that’s the product, service, website or anything else. Everyone is fighting that bit harder and are having to pay a bit more attention to creating customer loyalty.

“Loyalty is driven by a customer’s belief in a brand, and their experience that’s created through the communications you have with them. That said, the brand promise of Papa John’s for better pizza isn’t just about the actual food but the quality of service all-round. It’s just that now we measure it on a day-by-day and customer-by-customer basis.”

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