Papa John’s is one of America’s most prominent pizza restaurant chains, with advertisements appearing during NFL broadcasts, known for its slogan of “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza.” However, recently Papa John’s attracted unwanted attention and criticism for the way its founder and CEO John Schnatter responded to the NFL national anthem player protest controversy. On a conference call, “Papa John” Schnatter was quoted saying that “The NFL has hurt us…We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this.”
The company, which has a sponsorship deal to be the official pizza company of the NFL, appeared to be pointing fingers at the NFL’s players’ protests during the national anthem as a major cause of Papa John’s lower-than-expected sales and declining stock price.
Papa John’s quickly was criticized in the media, on late night talk shows and by people online for blaming the NFL’s player protests for its business challenges. No other NFL sponsors came forward to criticize the NFL or blame the NFL player protests for any declines in their business. Papa John’s soon found itself playing defense. Neo-Nazis saw a potential ally and tried to claim Papa John’s as the official pizza of the “alt-right.” Eventually, Papa John’s apologized.
This whole story is a great example of what not to do to market your business. Whatever industry you’re in, whatever size of business you run, here are a few marketing “don’ts” from the Papa John’s NFL saga:
1. Don’t blame others for your performance.
When sales are declining, look at your own work product and your own operations. Listen to your own customers, business partners and front-line employees. What are people saying? What’s changing? If your sales are down, chances are the problem is within your own business operations and within your control to change — not some external situation. Before you blame someone else, take a thorough inventory of what is within your control, then evaluate what changes are possible.
2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Papa John’s has a big marketing partnership with the NFL. It has clearly invested heavily in its NFL sponsorship — so on some level, it’s possible that a decline in NFL TV ratings would be significantly bad for Papa John’s business. But, even if that’s true, this is still a chance for Papa John’s to rethink how they’re marketing their own business and perhaps diversify their marketing allocations. Tying your business too heavily to one source of revenue makes you vulnerable. Whether it’s one big client, one popular product or one niche market, it’s never a good idea to have just one source of new business opportunities. Keep diversifying and expanding what is possible for your business.
3. Don’t antagonize people with a political stance.
Papa John’s made a mistake by unnecessarily inserting themselves into a contentious political issue – the NFL players’ protests during the national anthem. There’s a right way and a wrong way for brands to weigh in on contentious topics; Papa John’s did it all wrong. They sounded hostile and dismissive of the players’ concerns. They disregarded the substance of the players’ protests. They came off sounding tone-deaf and insensitive by viewing the demonstrations as simply a problem for their business.
Papa John’s could have handled this without alienating customers. It’s totally fine for brands to have a voice on social issues — just make sure it fits with your values and is consistent with your mission, not just a poorly considered set of remarks that upset lots of people.
Papa John’s threw the NFL, among its biggest marketing partners, under the bus! Even if Papa John’s had some valid complaints about how the NFL was handling the player protests — even if Papa John’s really was losing business because of the NFL partnership — the way they handled this situation made them look petulant. Comments which came off as poorly thought out and inconsiderate damaged their relationship with the NFL. By making the NFL look bad they refocused media attention in a way that (ironically) devalued Papa John’s own sponsorship of the NFL.
Speak up for your own business without bad-mouthing your business partners. Their success is important for your success too. Even if you get to a point where you want to end a business relationship, it helps to handle the situation with grace and tact. Your future business partners will look at how you treated your past business partners. Don’t burn bridges. People — at all levels of business — prefer to work with good, professional people who treat others with respect.
5. Rethink having “one person” serve as the iconic mascot for your brand.
Papa John’s is a family-owned business founded by Papa John. They’re unlikely to replace him as spokesman anytime soon, but other companies should learn from the pitfalls of having one (fallible) human with a brash personality representing their brand to the world. Your business, ideally, will grow to be bigger than any one person. Associating your company too closely with just one person or personality can hold you back from achieving further growth. People make mistakes. They have bad days. Sometimes they have short tempers, but your brand needs to be bigger and more durable than that.
No matter what brand of pizza you prefer, I think we can all agree that better pizza marketing starts with a spirit of optimism and humility. People buy from brands that are positive, friendly and approachable, not brands that complain about their own business partners. Hopefully, Papa John’s will learn from this mistake and redouble their efforts to truly offer “Better Pizza.”