When Domino's Pizza became the company behind the "task" on the March 31 episode of "The Apprentice," it pulled off one the greatest marketing coups in the history of pizza advertising.

Not only did the No. 2 chain work the time-honored strategy of product placement on the hit TV show, it utilized the evolving tactic of product integration, in which the show's contestants didn't just eat Domino's pizza, they developed it, marketed it, made it and sold it — all under the Domino's banner.

"The move was better than good, it was brilliant," said Allan Steinmetz, chief executive officer of Inward Strategic Consulting Inc., a branding and marketing consulting firm in Boston. "They've taken product integration and used it as part of the plot. They showed how pizzas were made, showed them selling pizza from a mobile Domino's unit, and you heard people saying

Team Magna's Bren finished a Mangia Meatball pizza developed for "The Apprentice."
  Photo by Kevin Gilbert/Blue Pixel

the pizza was good. You couldn't get a better selling message if you paid for it."

Which the Ann Arbor, Mich., firm did — and dearly so, some say. Domino's lips are sealed as to what it ponied up to participate in the show, but published reports estimate the cost at $2 million to $4 million.

Still, that's a veritable bargain for access to a potential audience of 15 million viewers. And while those viewers were thinking "pizza" — or perhaps, "These characters are getting on my nerves" — Domino's ran two spots in which the show's star, Donald Trump, chatted up the chain's new American Classic Cheeseburger Pizza and its 5-5-5 Deal.

But just when it appeared the show would be an all-Domino's affair, Papa John's added some drama to the advertising mix. In a clever parody of the boardroom scenes common on "The Apprentice," company founder and chairman John Schnatter swiveled around in a high-back leather chair and told the camera, "Tell the competition, 'They're fired!' Why eat a pizza made by an apprentice, when you can have a spicy meatball pizza from the pros at Papa John's?"

That was as memorable a TV touché as Terry Uhl has ever seen.

"I thought it was a brilliant move on Papa John's part, because it distinguished them as edgy and different," said Uhl, executive vice president of Landau Public Relations in Cleveland, Ohio. "They had to know it was a little bit of a risk to do that, but the publicity they've gotten from it shows it was a brilliant move."

Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre brushed off the impact of the counterattack.

"We were surprised they would want to spend their franchisees' money to advertise in a program that was a celebration of Domino's Pizza," said McIntyre. "We appreciate the extra marketing support our competitors gave us. They bought a full-page ad (in USA Today) which just

Pizza Apprentices

Despite one "Apprentice" contestant's claim that pizza making "isn't rocket science," both teams proved running a pizzeria isn't easy. Footage from the show featured one woman struggling to fold pizza boxes, a man placing pepperonis on a pizza at the rate of about one every second, phones ringing incessantly and a pizza falling off the end of a conveyor oven.

When the teams had completed their task, they were brought to Donald Trump's boardroom for the weekly grilling. Stephanie, the leader of the losing team, suffered most under the withering scowl of the comb-over king. A sample of their discussion follows:

Stephanie: I felt we lost this task because these guys committed and sold pizzas in Brooklyn.

Trump: Why couldn't you delegate that?

S: Because I wanted to apologize to those guys for our reputation, the name.

T: How long did it take?

S: About an hour and a half.

T: Wouldn't you say that's a big hour and a half to apologize to a couple of people who bought some pizza?

S: It wasn't just about apologizing. It was our reputation, the name.

T: You've got to win the task, right? If they like the pizza, you don't have to worry about the reputation. ... A good leader would have stayed with her team where she was needed most. I just don't think you're a strong leader, and because of that, I'm going to have to say, you're fired.

screamed 'Apprentice.' ... It reinforces how much people like to be associated with winners."

Papa John's spokesman Chris Sternberg also downplayed the commercial's role as a deliberate shot across Domino's bow. He said the spot, shown twice during the "The Apprentice" in 64 select local markets, had more to do with promoting its new Spicy Meatball pizza launched a week before.

"We felt that since a national viewing audience was focused on pizza, what better time to say, 'Hey, at Papa John's, we know how to make a great pizza,'" said Sternberg. "We thought that contrasting apprentices to pros was a great way to highlight our (message)."

Steinmetz didn't buy either company's non-competitive tones. Marketing is of little use if it isn't memorable, and both companies clearly sought to burn their messages into the minds of the audience. Papa John's and Domino's efforts during "The Apprentice" are proof of what companies that dare to market creatively can do, he added.

"What Domino's did ... you can't get any better than that. Whoever brought that idea to their attention should get a Clio," he said, referring to The Clio Awards, an international advertising competition. "What Papa John's did is called 'combat marketing'; it was a frontal attack on Domino's, and it was brilliant."

The mad scramble

A self-confessed TV and pop-culture lover, Domino's spokeswoman Holly Ryan came up with the idea of getting the company involved in "The Apprentice's" competitive "task" sequence. Past tasks, she said, lacked a real-world business element she thought running a pizzeria would bring to the challenge.

She took the idea to CEO and chairman David Brandon, who penned a letter to Trump and the show's producers. Though Brandon thought the company's chances of getting on the show were small, "our attitude was, 'Let's try it anyway,'" said Ryan.

Though the March 31 episode was taped last November, Domino's had only a month's warning of the broadcast date. Knowing its Cheeseburger pizza was due to "hard launch" near that same time, the company sought to capitalize on the opportunity by pushing up the launch date and making two new commercials featuring Trump. According to McIntyre, the spots were shot one week before the airing, and the editing was finished just two nights prior to the show.

Despite efforts to keep the Domino's-Apprentice connection secret, rumors circulated that the chain's turn on the show was near. Papa John's brand-new CEO and president, Nigel Travis, read reports on the rumors and came up with the idea for the parody ads.

"He wanted to show our franchisees and the employees here at Papa John's that we're going to have fun under his leadership," said Sternberg, whose new boss came aboard officially the day after the show aired. "This also was a way to show his competitive side."

That left Papa John's eight days to develop not only a new TV ad, but select the markets in which it would air, since it was unable to get national exposure on NBC. In the interest of time, the company used one of its existing ads for the Spicy Meatball pizza, spliced in the Schnatter-cum-Trump segment and ran it.

"When you have a total of eight days to get a thing like this together, it requires a lot of work," said Sternberg. "But we pulled together and got it done. ... It was a great morale booster for our staff to do that."

Both companies called the effort invested well worth it, and said the resulting publicity bonanza has more than justified any investment.

"If all you did was talk about the show itself, the connection with Donald Trump, the chance to use him in TV commercials and the residual PR benefit we're reaping from this, we can't even begin theorize what the full impact is," said McIntyre. "It goes way beyond just 45 minutes of advertising."

Independents: Stage a micro-coup

Though there is hardly clearer proof of the differences between the marketing firepower of a large, well-established brand like Domino's and that of a single-unit operator, experts say independents have just as many opportunities to stage PR coups of their own.

Landau's Uhl, who called the amount rumored spent by Domino's "maintenance money for a company that size," said smaller pizza operations can have a comparatively equal impact on their local markets for far less money. The trick is to be in the right place at the right time, he said.

"Sometimes it's just showing up at a community event with a stack of pizzas, napkins and plates and giving the pizza away," he said. "People respond to that whether it's Angie's Pizzas or pizza from a large brand. ... It's not about hitting a homerun with some slick campaign, it's just hitting a whole lot of base hits."

Steinmetz said straight-up product placement is both the easiest and most effective recognition-generating strategy any operator can employ. From dropping off free pizzas to drive-time radio DJs, to bringing hot food to hungry rescue workers at a disaster site, giveaways put the products in consumers' mouths and brands into their minds.

"You don't even have to ask permission to do this, you just show up," said Steinmetz. "When you do this, make sure your employees are wearing T-shirts and hats with logos, and if you can, have signage. It's all about getting your name out there."

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