The Domino’s Effect: Honest feedback yielding honest advertising

Turns out, honesty really is the best policy. Just look at Domino’s.

When the pizza giant solicited honest opinions about its product, the feedback was less than favorable. So, the company embarked upon a full product overhaul and subsequent ad campaign that promoted the fundamental changes to its product -- from the crust to the sauce. Both were huge risks for a company that has existed for 50 years, but they were risks that paid off with one of the company’s strongest fiscal years in its history.

The ad campaign, titled “Oh Yes We Did,” included some of the negative feedback generated through a variety of vehicles, including and especially social media.

“The crust tastes like cardboard,” customers said. “The sauce is reminiscent of ketchup!”

By including these brutally honest opinions in its national marketing strategy, Domino’s seemed to be offering a viral mea culpa; a mass apology for serving “cardboard and ketchup” for so long.

“We were a bit vulnerable to go out there and be very open about the negative feedback,” said Chris Brandon, spokesperson for Domino’s. “But we felt our fans deserved to be talked to. We’ll take honesty over risk.”

Brandon added that the company’s candid approach created anxiousness within the company, but not reluctance.

“We tested (the new pizza) so hard for so long and we weren’t going to stop testing it until we knew we got it right,” he said. “When you know you got it right, it gives you more confidence to go out there and be honest and say, ‘Hey, we know we can do better.’”

Since the campaign launched, not only have Domino’s sales been hot, its perception has been, as well. Brandon said the feedback is analytically and qualitatively measured internally and it has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“I think it’s very astute of them and their advertising people to admit they could do better and that it’s time for a total revamp. After a brand is 20 to 30 years old, if it suffers from negative customer feedback, the only thing you can do is admit it and show the public what you plan to do about it,” said Rhonda Sanderson, president of Chicago-based PR firm Sanderson & Associates.

Such transparency may be becoming a new norm in public relations.

Brands own up to their mistakes

In 2008, Starbucks closed 600 stores ahead of CEO Howard Schultz’s admission that the company made mistakes when it focused on expansion rather than its product. Although the coffee giant didn’t launch an ad campaign around this blunder, it did derive some PR value from the move, and some financial value as well as it continues to rebound. The company just experienced its strongest holiday season ever.

“We had to admit to ourselves and the people of this company that we owned the mistakes that were made. Once we did, it was a powerful turning point. It’s like when you have a secret and get it out: The burden is off your shoulders,” Schultz told the Harvard Business Review last year.

Church’s Chicken recently offered an apology to the entire city of Nashville for “not delivering on a promise of exceptional customer service and hospitality.”

To remedy the situation, the company closed all of the Music City’s 23 locations for an entire weekend so that its employees could participate in a customer service training boot camp. For measure, Church’s Chicken, which declined comment for this story, also launched TV and radio spots featuring President John Bowie apologizing, and launched a promo specifically for the market called “Nashville Dollar Days,” featuring one item per day for $1.

“Once you know your product is perceived as fairly mediocre by the public, it behooves you to take a new and exciting approach and I think clever advertising agencies are talking chains into this,” Sanderson said. “It lends to just ‘coming clean’ and now they realize that their customers like this and aren’t as stupid as they have been perceived in the past. Social media really helps you determine (unfavorable opinions).”

The role of social media in damage control

Social media played a big role in Domino’s approach, since sites such as Twitter and Facebook can send any negative criticism into a turbocharged viral tailspin. On the other hand, it also expedites the company’s response.

“(During the campaign) We took social media very seriously. It definitely holds companies more accountable than they’re maybe used to because all of the feedback, even negative feedback, is out there. The days of spin are over,” Brandon said. “But that’s also the beauty of social media; it serves as a place for our customers to go to be honest, which then allows us to do better.”

Before the advent of social media, if a company had a bad product or subpar service, it was likely buried deep in company memos, said Sanderson.

When a lawsuit was filed against Taco Bell in January, questioning the authenticity of its meat – and by extension its marketing accuracy – the chain responded with everything but a burial.

Taco Bell rolled out statements vigorously defending its product through social media and elsewhere, and President Greg Creed appeared in newspapers across the country thanking the Alabama-based law firm for suing the company. The issue allowed the company to be frank about its product, and Creed took advantage by outlining the exact details of Taco Bell’s beef recipe.

Prior to Taco Bell’s response campaign, YouGov’s BrandIndex, which interviews 5,000 people daily, showed a major drop in the brand’s favorable perception.

However, since the chain’s $3 million “Talk” campaign, consumer perception has rebounded sufficiently. YouGov’s BrandIndex shows Taco Bell’s word of mouth buzz scores, which took the biggest hit from the suit, have bounced back from a -10.6 ranking in mid-February to a +9.8 ranking in mid-March.

Taco Bell spokesperson Rob Poetsch said the response from the company’s 5.6 million Facebook fans has been “overwhelmingly positive and supportive,” as well. Per the theme of this recent wave of candidness, the company will continue to rely heavily on social media to boost and defend their brand if necessary.

“It’s a sign of the times. Because of social media and ongoing, pervasive news, everyone has to uber-defend themselves about everything and come out in front of it,” Sanderson said. “They’re not taking it lightly and they’re showing everyone that they have nothing to hide or they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.”

What do you think about these frank campaigns? Are they necessary because of social media?

Continue the conversation in the comments below!

Photo provided by Danielle Scott.

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