Pizza Hut Risks Becoming ‘Pizza What?’ with Bold Rebranding Effort

© 2014 Central Penn Business Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

Go big, or go home.

It’s a catchy phrase. It glorifies the daring move, making a splash, going all in for the win. It even concedes that it might not work. And it’s a risky strategy for an established brand like Pizza Hut.

Here’s a quick summary: Pizza Hut same-store sales have declined for two years. Its parent company, Yum Brands, has seen growth for its Taco Bell and KFC units, but Pizza Hut hasn’t kept up. Archenemy Domino’s seems to be eating Pizza Hut’s lunch with decent sales increases, even though it does not have a sit-down casual dining option.

So, Pizza Hut has launched a rebranding effort that consists of a new logo (more on that later), a completely revamped menu, with a much wider range of toppings and crust flavoring options, and a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign called the “Flavor of Now,” in which its new pizza combos are tested by Old World Italians and flatly rejected as “not pizza.”

Pizza Hut seems to be counting on millennials to bite on the classic reverse psychology presented in the spots as a joke.

“This is the biggest change we’ve ever made,” Carrie Walsh, chief marketing officer of Pizza Hut, said in an interview with USA Today. “We’re redefining the category.”

But, in changing so much about the brand in one fell swoop, is it trying to do too much? After all, this isn’t just adding stuffed crust as an option. This also takes away a great deal of what makes the brand familiar to its core audience.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, the restaurant industry research firm, responded in the same USA Today story in this way: “Pizza Hut may be doing too much too quickly. It would appear that the brand that has lost touch with the consumer is trying to change too much overnight.”

All told, Pizza Hut will add 11 new pizza recipes, 10 new crust flavors, six new sauces, five new toppings, four new flavor-pack drizzles, that new logo, new uniforms, a new pizza box and a partridge in a pear tree.

That Pizza Hut is going big, there is no doubt. But there are risks, starting with its core customers. This isn’t New Coke, but will its loyal customer base be thrown by so much change?

While I’m not sure Old World Italians would think that Pizza Hut’s previous offerings were any more worthy of their blessing, it is a product that’s been more or less established for decades. So, there is some risk that the new menu, which replaces some items, will alienate a percentage of its customers and drive them to try other options.

Let’s say that number is 5 percent of sales. That’s a big chunk to overcome with sales from new customers just to break even on this venture.

The second risk is that, with so much change, will it be possible to tell what’s working and what’s not? The chain has more than doubled its available ingredients at all of its 6,300 locations. Will it be possible to tell which combinations are working well when there will be so many possibilities? Maybe not.

But maybe it won’t matter. If the pizza-makers at the country’s leading pizza chain can manage all the extra ingredients and make what will be essentially custom pizzas for anyone who wants one, Pizza Hut could be on to something. Personalized menu items are working for Chipotle and Panera, so why not take a shot at riding the wave? It can always moonwalk its menu back to where it came from if it doesn’t move the needle. It’s got Pizza Hut Classics in its back pocket just in case, right?

Now, about the new logo. It’s great to signal a rebranding effort with an updated logo. People take notice. It makes them curious. And this one uses a mark that resembles a pizza, or, more accurately, the sauce of a pizza, which puts the product front and center.

The part that gets me is that the roofline “hut” image from the old logo has been dropped in the middle of the sauce. Now it looks like a hat, not a roof. Unless it’s supposed to be one of the new toppings, it just looks like pieces of the logo have been redistributed.

Pizza Hat, anyone? Or Pizza What? In a few months, we’ll know whether this little pizza rebrand went to market or if it went all the way home.

But there are risks, starting with its core customers.

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