By Kristin Muhlner
No matter how you choose to enjoy your pizza, whether crust first or folded, pizza places are raking in the dough across U.S. market segments. Growth is on the rise for top national pizza chains such as Domino's and Papa John's, as well as for regional pizza parlor chains. Although costly advertising campaigns might explain some of the growth in the top tier, it doesn't readily explain why pizza places you've probably never heard of in your neighborhood also experienced a sizable sales increase last year.
A theory is that pizza is one meal that satisfies a lot of requirements for groups of people — it's fast, tasty, inexpensive and easily eaten on the premises or delivered to your house. According to Technomic's Generational Consumer Trend Report, baby boomers prefer to dine in, while Gen-X'ers prefer takeout, and Millennials (born after 80's) would rather order delivery. Because most pizza parlors can offer any of these options, it stays top of mind no matter the consumer segment.
Another reason pizza is such a crowd pleaser is its ability to disguise itself as a healthy food option. So although a traditional pizza menu is really just variations of the same dish plus your typical salad choices, it gets high marks from customers in the menu selection category. Drilling down even further into the comparative themes of the more than 10 pizza concepts analyzed by newBrandAnalytics, healthy food trends include "vegan pizza," "veggie toppings," "wheat crust," and "gluten-free pizza." But overwhelmingly, it's the classic pizza elements mentioned with the most volume in social media, such as "pepperoni," "cheese," "sauce" and "breadstick."
Casual dining places wanting to steal dollars from competitors have started introducing flatbreads to their menu. And while it's wise to capitalize on trends, all chains must examine the real-time customer feedback provided via social commentary to be able to gauge the immediate failure or success of such a radical operational change. Because if a review site user community like the Yelp Elite gets the impression your new pizza offering isn't tasty, or that your take-out orders are often wrong, your gamble will backfire. Be sure to note whether your current social intelligence tool has a delivery and to-go operational subcategory, because the insight groupings (speed of service, accuracy, etc.) can be quite different for the takeout experience than dining-in.
The source of the online commentary for the majority of pizza chains is determined by the dining experience — most delivery-only chains have high-volume Twitter data, whereas local pizza hangouts are mentioned more on review sites. It's not surprising, then, that the most positive themes for big brand pizza retailers is the company name, or a reference to a promotion, while neighborhood shops rank better for positive service themes and named servers.
Corporate and franchisee teams for pizza brands should turn to social intelligence to examine their brand reputation and operational performance by location. More advanced execs, or "super users," should also take advantage of their competitors' customer data so not to miss an opportunity to improve and steal market share. Goliath pizza chains like Pizza Hut and Little Caesars should also remember to include a few local parlors in their competitive analysis to familiarize themselves with boutique trends, like this popular trend seen across several delivery and dine-in pizza joints — fusing entrée flavors into pizza toppings, for example, BBQ Chicken Pizza, Cheese Burger Pizza and Eggs & Ham Pizza.
In this food theme cloud example, a majority of customer sentiment is positive except for a few negative insights gathered about calzone, salad and crust. Users can also read the verbatim review to understand exactly what their customers didn't love — this knowledge gives culinary staffers a chance to remedy issues, and those actions give marketers a chance to invite that guest back for a second trial.
As a business owner, anything you can do with social data to increase your customers' intent to return is smart, no matter how you slice it.
Kristin Muhlner is CEO of newBrandAnalytics, a social intelligence firm serving food and beverage, hospitality and retail organizations.
Photo provided by Hash Milhan.