Marketing Mayhem: What Papa John’s Can Do To Recover From A PR Nightmare


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Brand Marketing Mayhem: What Papa John’s Can Do To Recover From A PR Nightmare

So what do you do as a brand if your entire image is wrapped around one individual... and the partnership goes wrong? Do you put your head down like an ostrich and try to weather the storm ... or do you start looking for different eggs to put in your basket, and grab onto other properties and individuals who can help give you a quick brand lift while sharing your message of brand beliefs which (hopefully) counter those of whatever happened that went wrong.

Such is the case of Papa John's at this moment in time. In this blog, Hollywood Branded discusses what brands like Papa John’s can do to recover from a PR nightmare caused by its own self-created celebrity persona, and brand founder. 

PR Nightmare Papa John's

A Little Background To The Story

So what exactly caused the hoopla around a pizza chain that has captured the nation’s attention? Well… a few things. 

It all started after the founder and CEO originally got the NFL on his bad side by stating during the company’s November 2017 third-quarter earnings call that “the NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle” in reference to players kneeling during the National Anthem, where the Papa’s John stock fell 11% in just hours, and ultimately fell by 25% since his remarks.

And then after player after player condemned the CEO and the brand he was the face of.

And then the brand faced the cancellation of a six-year-old sponsorship contract, hurriedly replaced by Pizza Hut in I am sure a fire sale of an opportunity, as pizza and home football watching go hand in hand.

And then the final nail was driven home after an in-house conference call that was supposed to be a PR media training event, where the infamous 'N' word slur was uttered... only then did the brand's board of directors finally see the light and require resignation or termination. 

Backlash From... Well Everyone

Damage is ongoing and the brand is in a bevy of meetings I am sure to find a way to reassure sponsors and customers alike. 

Regardless, his latest actions caused Major League Baseball to discontinue its Papa Slam promotion where every time a grand slam happened, people could purchase pizza at 40% off the next day.  Even individual MLB teams – dropped the pizza chain as a local sponsor.  And the University of Louisiana decided to remove Schnatter’s name from its football stadium – despite the fact that he has donated $15 million dollars to secure those naming rights through 2040.  That’s some morality clause that must have been built into that contract. 

The biggest problem of course for Papa John’s, is that the founder, John Schnatter is just as entwined into the public image of his company as was Harvey Weinstein, as both men named their businesses after their own names, making truly being able to get away from the controversy all that much harder.  If your company is Domino’s, Pizza Hut or Little Caesar’s, the CEO’s name is not tied to the brand.  And removing an executive becomes tremendously easier to do, from a PR and marketing standpoint at least.   

In the case of Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood called for the destruction of the entire empire he and his brother had built, at the detriment to the livelihoods of the hundreds of individuals working for the company, and the thousands of individuals and businesses directly impacted from the work they did in association with the company.  Each film and TV show that was cancelled led to jobs losses not only on set, but to every business who help to support such work.  Including our own agency in fact, where we experienced six figure contract cancellations for brand partnership deals we had already been in contractual negotiations, spending months of time that on productions that would not live to see final edit and release. 

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And Then There Were None

Interestingly, while their media agency Initiative originally held course and actually declared they were going to support the brand, both the marketing agency on the phone with Schnatter as well as the new PR company that had been hired for damage control  quit. 

This came after the initial NFL debacle immediately quit versus bearing down to help the brand deal with this last and perhaps most damaging utterance of a word that has caused of late Netflix to replace a prominent C suite player who helmed, of all things, public relations - their own Chief Communications Officer. 

Initiative, less than a week after they stated they would continue working with the brand, then resigned after Forbes released their story on sexual harassment and other negative behavior among key executives in the corporation.

Step One: Making Sure There Is A Future For Papa John's

So what can Papa John’s do now? Realistically anything they do at the moment is going to be under the media microscope and they should expect to be looked at under a harsher light. They are in a tough spot at the moment, so anything they touch will be stigmatized by some who is looking to continue to challenge the brand. And there are always people who are going to take a hard stance, and be very vocal about it.  But it’s those who people who don’t charge to the megaphones, who may have a softer viewpoint, that the brand needs to really direct its actions and messaging towards. 

The very first thing that perhaps should have already happened earlier in the year has now finally occurred. The founder and CEO has been removed from helming the brand. Which was obviously a very tough step to take in the first place since Papa John's was very much so the baby he birthed and raised all through these long years of the brand’s 33 year history. 

In fact, Papa John’s did pull ads heavily featuring the founder, but according to Forbes, the founder then moved forward and actually fired Papa John’s CMO who was heading the effort to curtail advertising with his face as part of the advertisements the company was running, and he then personally hired a marketing agency to create ads featuring him that would air in key markets, allowing his image to continue to be a larger-than-life presence over the brand’s own marketing efforts.  The board of directors obviously had no control over Schnatter.  

Which led to this second transgression, where he in a supposed role-playing conference call where a marketing agency had been hired by the corporation to help Schnatter make him friendlier for the media, he instead dropped the bomb-loaded word and offended those on the phone. 

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Step Two: Making Sure There Is A Future For Papa John's

But there is still something else they need to do.  The second thing, which is what will allow this very established - and enjoyed by many (that chicken alfredo pizza is actually incredibly good with their garlic butter dipping sauce) is that they are finally removing Schnatter’s image from the brand’s own logo itself.

Which should have immediately happened 7 months earlier. 

And that is the heart of the issue and a question all brands in this day and age need to think about. Is it worth having a single individual so much the face of the brand. Because should that individual make even one bad step in life... one misstep that lands them in an illegal situation or a moment of just sheer bad idea political incorrectness, the brand is going to share the brunt of the blame. Especially in the case of an individual whose face is on every single pizza box or marketing material. 

So how as a brand can you still capitalize on the individual, but also keep the waters muddied enough with other famous faces or personalities that can lighten the impact of a misstep. Well, for brands dealing with celebs we suggest shared spotlights or creating campaigns that may be less 'all brand' and more 'brand moment' and looking for multiple celebrity or personality faces that can be branded over a specified time versus the life of the brand. 

How Other Brands Use Celebrity "Faces" - Safely

KFC has approached this by using multiple celebrity faces of its Colonel and actually turning those different personalities into a montage of comedic acts. No single celebrity is the actual face, but the power of celebrity is still used.  Interestingly enough, Papa John’s founder actually stated in defense of his own usage of the N word that Colonel Sanders had said it, and not been vilified for doing so.  Countless media outlets have reported that there is no proof to substantiate that statement of Sander’s having done so. on the other hand has positioned Jeff Goldblum as THE face of the brand, and wrapped its entire marketing efforts around the character they've created. Far riskier with more pitfalls to contend with should he do something wrong. But the campaign itself is memorable and the brand feels worth the risk. The same goes with Capital One and Jennifer Gardner. While she has always had a very clean image, the cheating scandal of her now ex-husband Ben Affleck cast her in the public eye and put her life under scrutiny for quite some time. And had to wear a bit on Capital One as well. 

So What CAN Papa John Do Now? 

In my opinion there are two immediate steps Papa John's needs to take. 

Step One: First, they need to create a program embracing black initiatives.  Everything around this controversy is driven over and over again by what appears as the pizza company’s founder’s racist ideology.  Perhaps there was no original ill-intent, but his statements don’t feel that way to the general public, and have been hurtful to the black community at large.  Creating such a program is an obvious and apparent play for forgiveness and one that if they do, they need to very openly do with continuous outward acknowledgement of why they are doing so, which is to correct a wrong. And they should expect concern and potential pushback from sponsorship stakeholders who will want to make sure that this is not only a PR move that will last a heartbeat and potentially damage their own brands in the meanwhile. 

Step Two: Secondly, they need to create a new brand position in general, and shout it widely from the roof tops. All the while still not ignoring their past, and making sure they continuously state they are learning from past mistakes, and using that education to help the brand move forward and become a better company. 

Other celebrities have faced this type of negative publicity and still managed to recover.  Paula Dean and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson both were caught saying racist things. Kayne West (who is still recovering) shared some political and racist beliefs that offended his core fan base.  Tiger Woods drove drunk, crashed and fought with his wife.  Martha Stewart actually went to jail for tax evasion.  And in our new #metoo and political correctness movements sweeping not only our nation but the world, there has been a big learning lesson that people need to be aware of. What is that?  Those that shy away from any admitted blame are more heavily attacked versus those who have admitted fault and the self-awareness needed to strive to walk down a corrected path. This applies to both individuals and businesses.  Well’s Fargo is in a heap of distrust by consumers based on their lack of sincerity in accepting blame. 

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Taking Responsibility

Today, being sincere counts for a lot. And can help with most transgressions. That and firing and replacing anyone at a corporate level who contributed to a negative atmosphere.

This is a time to take those marketing dollars and strongly push out branding. To not hide and think that as time passes this will all blow over. Because it will blow over, but that tactic by waiting in the shadows will cause a tremendous loss of business in the process.  And hurt a lot of people. 

But The Truth Is...

In reality, there are large amounts of individuals who believed in everything the founder has said.

And there are other large groups who aren't tuned in or aligned to football and didn't feel the impact of the decisive division caused by his initial shared words at the company shareholders meeting when he blamed the NFL for the brands loss of business, which started their whole slide to hell these last many months. 

And there are many who may not be so highly enraged by his usage of a highly inappropriate word known for its power packed punch of racism, especially amongst older demographics who grew up with its unfortunate usage as part of their life.

And so the brand still has a strong base of fans, despite these last many months.

And if Papa John's can find a way to proactively separate from and share the brands' - not the founders' - positive, liberating, and community building belief system... it has more than a fighting chance of survival. 

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People Are The Brand - Beyond The CEO And C Suite

Our world is not one of joined hands and fa la la la la moments of complete unity. No.  At this time in history we are facing some of the biggest extremes of political beliefs, hatred, racism, and bigotry. Mexicans. Muslims. Jews.  Blacks.  We are a world divided in many ways.  And our country... the whole world is in turmoil because the dichotomy of extreme beliefs is out there. Our world has changed with social media which allows a thought to be shared to a giant platform and built upon and reinforced by others. 

This is a starting over moment for the brand. They have a good product. They are not going to be the face of football any longer. And the face of their founder is no longer going to be the face of their own brand, adorned on every box. Now is the time for them to determine who the brand actually is.  And what it will become. Because the brand has outgrown the founder. 

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Using Entertainment Marketing To Help 

The company needs to use every spare nickel and dime sharing that messaging to the public, by leveraging other platforms. From talk shows where they can get in front of the conversation with a spokesperson in place ready to answer the (ok... full transparency, here, previously agreed upon) questions and reinforce messaging, to scripted TV shows where messaging can safely be built in. To revisiting film partnerships done well in years past with pizza promotions and cobranded delivery boxes, to speaking engagements rotating different individuals from the company in news interviews and podcasts where the situation can be addressed and then, eventually, moved pass.  To other sports sponsorships, perhaps starting smaller... in the community youth level, and rebranding while rebuilding. 

Originally, I cheered Papa Johns' media agency Initiative’s CEO Amy Armstrong who at first decided to stay the course as Papa John's media agency of record. Because a brand is not about a founder. It is about the hundreds and thousands of employees who give their 40 hours plus every week at a job. It's about the time they sacrifice away from their own families to help build a brand and company. It’s about their getting paychecks that allow their family to thrive, and the money that is then able to be put back into a community to grow. And it’s about the product that they have built and brought to life. Long live Papa John's for these reasons. and here's to hoping they figure it out as they have a mountain to climb.

There is more to this story that I don't know. That the agencies who represented Papa John's may have insight into that is not shared with the public. That other articles beyond Forbes may illuminate in the weeks and months ahead.  The misdeeds of this company may in fact be so horrendous, that recovery is not possible.

But for all those franchisee owners, employees and others who have supported this brand and helped build it into the pizza machine beast it has become, I hope for their sake that their dreams are not ended based on actions by a CEO and his supporting executives. Because that simply would be a tragedy.

Thinking About Your Brand 

Really, most brands aren’t going to be facing this turmoil from an action their own CEO or founder takes.  But the take away I want you to leave with is that all brands, when investing in celebrity talent endorsement partnership, it is essential to put in place and optimize a detailed safety plan in prior to activation, to help you have the forethought to safeguard against potential blunders that could occur. 

Celebrities can find themselves in hot water through bad decisions. Their mistakes, unlike the rest of us, get broadcast around the world for all to see.  Drunk driving, trouble with the law, relationship issues, or negative comments picked up by paparazzi can all derail a campaign if a plan is not in place to respond quickly to the matter. 

Bad news in the entertainment industry spreads faster than a wildfire. In today's nonstop-posting, always tweeting, over-sharing world, you must have a crisis plan in place to manage true PR horror stories that will allow your brand to respond in an effective and timely manner. 

Make sure you read these two blogs: 

And check out these other blogs our team has written that will help you on your celebrity endorsement partnership journey.

Take a look at this video below to better understand the solutions I discussed for Papa John's in regards to leveraging entertainment marketing to get messaging out to help right a sinking ship.  From talk shows to scripted programming, cross promotions with feature films - using a 3rd party's content instantly can raise opinions and beliefs about a brand in a positive way.  The stamp of Hollywood approval is incredibly important - and incredibly strong.

Watch the video to learn what is Product Placement