Will twist on old vow deliver for Domino’s Pizza?

Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s been 14 years since Domino’s last promised to deliver a pizza to someone’s door within 30 minutes, but that pledge is still stuck in many customers’ heads. Now, the chain is trying to hearken back to that hardy ad campaign – this time without getting sued.

Domino’s made its name in pizza delivery by running ads that offered a discounted or free pie if the driver didn’t arrive within 30 minutes of an order. But in 1993, a St. Louis woman who was involved in an auto accident with a Domino’s delivery person sued the company on the grounds that the 30-minute pledge led to accidents. Domino’s later settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum that the company says was in the seven-figure range, and, fearing a wave of similar lawsuits, abandoned the promise.

Ever since then, the company has struggled to craft an equally distinctive marketing message. ”I don’t think there was a time in my nine years here … where we didn’t whine about how we wish we could just put the 30-minute guarantee back,” says Domino’s Pizza Inc.’s Chief Executive David Brandon. Delivery times also slowed without the guarantee to motivate workers.

After hiring a new advertising agency, Domino’s now plans to rebrand itself around a play on the old slogan. New ads slated to start running Christmas Eve will carry the tagline ”You Got 30 Minutes.” The idea is to tell customers that ordering from Domino’s gives them back 30 minutes they would have spent rustling up a meal. But it stops short of promising delivery in a half hour.

The question is whether that slogan is close enough to the old guarantee to help Domino’s stand out again in a cluttered market dominated by independent local pizzerias and discounts. Mr. Brandon estimates that about 85 percent of everything sold in the pizza category is discounted in some way. Since last year, Domino’s same-store sales growth at U.S. locations has been declining, and the company’s net income also has fallen. Other large pizza chains also have been struggling to increase sales and profit. Overall growth in the pizza category has flattened, and the prevalence of discounting has made it harder for chains to increase their prices in order to offset rising costs of everything from cheese to oregano.

Domino’s founder Thomas Monaghan practically invented the modern pizza-delivery business when he started the company in the nearby town of Ypsilanti in 1960. In 1986, Domino’s began advertising its promise of a free pizza if the order failed to arrive within 30 minutes. Some customers would turn off their porch lights to try to delay the delivery person. The company later changed the free pizza to a $3 discount for late deliveries.

After abandoning the guarantee in the wake of the St. Louis lawsuit, Domino’s began playing up the taste and quality of the pizzas themselves. But that left its ads looking more like those of competitors Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and mom-and pop pizzerias.

This summer, Domino’s set out to find a new agency to replace WPP Group’s JWT. The agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky of Miami spent time with Domino’s franchisees and was struck by how much of the chain’s culture still centered on speed inside the shops. Research found that as many as 30 percent of Domino’s customers still remembered it as the 30-minute delivery chain, even though those ads hadn’t run since Bill Clinton’s first year as president. Meantime, delivery had become an even more important part of American culture because of online shopping and movie delivery.

”Our target’s need isn’t for pizza,” says Ken Calwell, Domino’s chief marketing officer. ”It’s for convenience.”

The agency looked at bringing back the 30-minute guarantee but decided there was no legally safe way to do it. ”We knew the historical baggage that surrounded it, so the mission became, how do we use the equity that takes advantage of the historical link,” but is ”appropriate” legally, says Jeff Hicks, chief executive of Crispin.

To better understand customers, Crispin went to the dormitories and apartments of Domino’s patrons and those of competitors. Crispin videotaped people buying and eating pizza. A new profile of Domino’s customers emerged.

The company calls them ”fast-and-simple” consumers who, among other things, are young people who seek immediate gratification and rely heavily on technology. Domino’s decided to shift its target to consumers 30 and under, down from as old as age 49.

Crispin thought it could revive the 30-minute idea by positioning it instead as a gift of time to customers. The new ads show funny scenes of people using their time waiting for the pizza to hang out with friends or do an exercise video. Faux coupons, for instance, say they’re ”good for 30 minutes of video game smack talking.”

Domino’s also plans to rely more on digital advertising and clever marketing on its pizza boxes, using them more as cereal makers do.

Inside its shops, Domino’s is trying to cut the time it takes to fill orders and get them out the door. But Domino’s executives say they’re looking for speedier service only inside their kitchens. Delivery people are told to drive below the speed limit. Mr. Brandon also says Domino’s lawyers carefully vetted the new campaign.

”I don’t want to be the captain of the ship that goes back into court,” he says.

Comments are closed.