My, have the mighty fallen. The iconic Papa John’s went from classic American hero, to recent American zero. The company that challenged the pizza industry in the late 90’s, have become the center of controversy.
You’ve heard the story by now. Out of Jefferson, Indiana (suburb outside of Louisville, KY), John Schnatter started the franchise out of his father’s tavern. He sold his classic Camaro to gather the money to start the business, and he went legendary after that.
He was the typical “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” story. The poster child for entrepreneurship. Being willing to give up everything in hopes of gaining something big. And we saw that. The slogan “better pizza” and “better ingredients” caught on. And more and more Papa John’s delivery vehicles were crowding the road. They were catching on so fast, that the other major Pizza companies had to re-brand.
Domino’s were re-doing their crusts, Pizza Hut added sandwiches, chicken, and pastas to their menu, and Little Caesars went to $5 pizzas. But the Papa was continuing to make themselves known. They gained sponsorship with a number of theme parks, mainly Six Flags. They were the official Pizza brand for Super Bowls XLV, XLVI, and XLVII. They also sponsored the NFL in Canada, Mexico, and the UK. They gained a partner in Peyton Manning. And to top it off, they gained the naming rights of the University of Louisville’s football stadium.
So even though, officially, Papa John’s haven’t reached the top of the pizza chains. They were making a lot of waves. And they were charging full steam ahead.
But what happened?
The company from humble beginnings could not stop drawing (negative) attention to themselves. From the company aggravating Cav’s fans in 2008, an employee writing “lady chinky eyes” on a receipt in 2012, to the owner talking about spreading the Affordable Health Care costs on to customers (something that I’m sure all businesses were doing, Papa was just open about it). But all that did not hurt the chain much. They were still on track, and delivering loads of pizzas, and opening new franchises.
But then 2017 happened. President Trump commented on the players of the NFL kneeling, and on started the war between (some) NFL players and Trump. Players felt it was their right to kneel during the national anthem to protest the police shootings of unarmed black men. President Trump felt the players should stand proudly during the anthem. And this dispute divided locker rooms, offices, and a nation. The backlash can still be felt today.
The “Papa” himself, John Schnatter, commented on how the kneeling controversy was costing the franchise money. Though he later apologized, he found himself (and his company) embroidered in the middle of the anthem controversy. From condemning Nazi pizza, to trying to distance themselves from the mess altogether.
The final straw was the leak of a recording during a July 11th, 2018 conference call. During that call, John Schnatter can be heard using the “n” word. Sponsors quickly bailed, with the University of Louisville removing the “Papa John’s” signs that same day. Stocks spiraled (and continue to spiral), the company booted the CEO, and been trying to distance themselves since.
Despite the efforts of the board, the damage has been done. Talking to a number of people, they have sworn off the company, vowing to never buy their pizzas again. These were customers who admitting either loved the pizza, or at least enjoyed them occasionally.
The board has tried everything to smooth over the customer base, but the damage is just too deep at a time where the nation is clearly divided. The same customers protesting police shootings of unarmed black men, leaning on the side of Colin Kaepernick, and frustrated from the rhetoric, has associated Papa John’s with that rhetoric. And that name (Papa John’s), for many, is sonorous with the racial contestation associated with actions, such as, the recent string of calling the police on black people.
Fair or unfair, the reality is that we are in a climate mixed with over sensitivity and actual racial tension. And companies are having to watch themselves even more now. Unfortunately for Papa John’s, it is too late. They are in the thick of it. And getting out will not be easy. But here are my suggestions.
They say time heals all wounds. And right now they are just going to have to weather the storm. The board has done what they could to distance themselves from the founder. Now, it doesn’t help that he is constantly in the media fighting back. But if they can keep their heads down, they can slowly get back in the graces of customers.
Name and Brand
They need to do more than just remove the apostrophe. It is time for a whole new name. Maybe something like, “The Neighborhood Pizza Store?”
It is time for a new name, new colors, new mascot, the entire ordeal. Papa John’s is just too viral, and it may never recover. Once a group of people swear off a brand, good luck getting them back.
After time and name change, build the brand by truly focusing on communities. And in a sincere way. Get in the midst of community projects, sponsor tournaments, really become the neighborhood pizza store. This will help build the brand back up, along with trust.
Papa John’s Pizza started from very humble beginnings, to becoming a major pizza brand. They found themselves the go to pizza for sporting events. Concert halls, stadiums, arenas, and big events had the Papa John’s booth in the corners. Now, they find themselves scrambling to repair broken wounds. Wounds that may be too deep to heal. People are bailing left and right, and keeping stock prices from continuing to plummet is becoming a challenging task for board members. The business that started with a dream and a sacrifice has become a nightmare. Will this company ever be able to recover?