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Pizza Hut tries adventurous changes to identity, menu

By Stuart Elliott

New York Times

Much is at stake as Pizza Hut begins what executives are calling the biggest campaign in its 56-year history, promoting changes in just about every aspect of its identity: products, packaging, logos, color palettes, uniforms and websites.

The goal of the campaign that stared last week – the first work by Pizza Hut’s new creative agency, Deutsch L.A. – is to alter perceptions by assuring consumers, particularly members of the millennial generation, that Pizza Hut understands how ardently they are embracing different foods and flavors.

To assure skeptics that the changes are more than cosmetic, the campaign promises more menu variety than ever: six new sauces, 10 new crust flavors and 11 new pizza recipes. Sorry, no pizza in a pear tree, although Peruvian cherry peppers are a new topping option.

The campaign includes commercials on television, on radio and online; a presence on social media like Facebook and Twitter; and events intended to bring excitement to communities like Bland, Mo., and Normal, Ill. The theme is “The flavor of now,” which replaces “Make it great” and echoes “The future is now,” the slogan of the make-believe company Hudsucker Industries in the 1994 movie “The Hudsucker Proxy.”

Pizza Hut is confronting daunting challenges in a competitive category. Although Pizza Hut is by far the largest American pizza seller, it has suffered eight quarters in a row of comparable sales declines as smaller rivals like Domino’s and Papa John’s gain market share. Almost five years ago, Domino’s began a transformation that involved new products and ads, and the success of those efforts may have influenced Pizza Hut.

Domino’s executives “worked hard on their turnaround,” said Carrie Walsh, chief marketing officer of Pizza Hut, in Dallas. She characterized what Pizza Hut was undertaking as nothing less than “reinventing the pizza category” with initiatives created after a year of consumer research.

Erich Joachimsthaler, chief executive of the Vivaldi Partners Group, a marketing agency in New York, called the Pizza Hut changes “a very gutsy rebranding” but wondered “whether this all-out effort is necessary to get the business on track.”

Pizza Hut “is adopting the successful principles of fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle,” particularly variety and choice, Joachimsthaler said. “I’m not sure whether those principles work in the pizza category.”

Pizza Hut spent $118.6 million on advertising in the first six months of the year, according to the Kantar Media unit of WPP, compared with $131.1 million in the same period last year. For all of 2013, Kantar Media reported, ad spending totaled $247.4 million, compared with $239.1 million in 2012.

Although Pizza Hut declined to provide numbers for the budget of the new campaign, Walsh said, “it is far and away our biggest advertising and marketing initiative.”

She added, “I see us talking about flavor for a long time coming.”