If you listen to the bookies, er, um, sports pundits, whichever team wins the AFC championship will roll in the Super Bowl. Units like the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Indianapolis Colts are simply bigger, tougher and faster than anything the NFC can field.
Much the same can be said about the pizza industry on Super Sunday. Without question, the lion's share of sales that day will go to Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza and Papa John's. Each are proffering bare-knuckled bargains that lesser chains will struggle to match, and they're spending millions to promote them.
So what should smaller pizza companies do? Call time out? Take a knee? Roll over and let the "Steel Curtain" advertising blitz crush their marketing messages?
Not at all, many
A Figaro's Pizza Big Game Buck, dubbed within the company as a "Figgy Buck."
"This is not a time to spend money trying to get new customers," said Karington. Such short-notice, long-bomb marketing efforts yield fewer touchdowns than incomplete passes, he added. "There are so many other messages out there for an event like that, so it's easy to get yours lost. Go to people who already trust you and buy from you."
Though the big game is more than three weeks away, Karington recommended operators start hyping special offers now. This will help customers plan ahead when and from where they'll buy pizza.
"If I were going to do something, I'd work my database to find my best customers and then do a small mailing to them," he said, "I also might do something with box toppers, and I'd put it out two weeks in advance of the Super Bowl."
Why two weeks? Because that's the average pizza-buying cycle for many customers, he said. Bottom line, Karington added, is to love most those customers who treat you well the rest of the year.
"I mean, really, 'Joe Average' is not going to take a risk on a new place on Super Bowl Sunday anyway," he said. "And is it worth the risk to disappoint good customers that day if you get too busy? That can happen."
Several operators said repeated, long-term promotion of a Super Bowl promo helps customers pick out and recall their messages from amid the deluge of advertisements nearer game day. For several weeks now, Figaro's Pizza has handed out "Big Game Bucks" which customers use to lower the price of their Super Bowl Sunday purchases. For every $10 spent prior to game day, customers get a $1 paper Big Game Buck.
"Those are redeemable only on Super Bowl Sunday," said Jerry Doty, director of marketing for the Salem, Ore.-based chain. "You're gearing people up to remind them that yours should be the place they should buy on Super Bowl Sunday."
Order takers and delivery drivers also remind customers that the "bills" are only good on game day. Making the point that Super Bowl specials are for that day only, Karington said, helps the message stand out.
"It's good to use a headline that calls out something like 'Super Bowl Savings!'" Karington said. "If it just looks like any other special, it could slip right past them unnoticed. Saying 'Savings for January' doesn't have the same impact."
Scott Anthony, a single-unit Fox's Pizza franchisee, will run his Football Feast promotion that has been in place since the beginning of the pro season. Its strong success thus far convinces him core customers will remain in the habit of buying the two pie, wings and soda special for Super Bowl.
"If you run specials just one week or a month, it doesn't seem like it's long enough for customers to catch on and utilize it," said Anthony, whose shop is in Punxsutawney, Pa. "I've been trying to run a few specials just two to three times a year so customers can get used to them. That's worked well so far."
Part of Figaro's offensive marketing strategy is to push take-and-bake pizzas, something the large chains don't have.
"A lot of people get them before the game and cook them at half time or during the course of the game," Doty said. "That's a beauty of take and bake."
Pick your medium
Since the mega-chains can afford to dominate TV advertising, look for more affordable and targeted marketing opportunities.
* Assemble a marketing plan focused on existing customers first.
Doty said Figaro's is sticking with store-level marketing for the event. "It's not even wise to compete with the big chains; we just can't. But if I had had their budgets, I'd be blitzing too."
Anything that's database driven — i.e. targeted to known customers — can work, if it's done properly, Karington said.
"If you want to put out a good bargain, then look at your database, figure out what your average check is, and then price a special near that number," said Karington. If more independent operators compiled and used databases correctly, he added, chains might not dominate Super Bowl year after year. "Mom and pops typically don't have the database they need to do this, and because of that, they set themselves up to get a pounding on occasion."
John Pronick, director of operations at Zabros Pizza Buffet, expects his place will be swamped before the game, but comparably dead by kick off. Still, that's not keeping him and his staff from reminding customers why they should visit during the game.
"If the wives and children want to step away from the big hype of the game, we invite them to come in at half time," said Pronick, whose operation is in Saginaw, Mich. "The real value of our place is you get all you can eat for $3.99. Everyone here gets the pizza they want, as much as they want. It's not like at a party where they have to fight for the last piece."