A little over a year and half ago, I had never heard of Twitter and, aghast, did not even have a Facebook page. But times are a-changin’ and we are not in Kansas anymore. In the blink of a digital eye, skeptics become advocates, purchases become conversations, retail brands are morphing into publishers, and the social contagion that is Charlie Sheen has infected us all. Tiger blood for two, please!
When we started our little pizza adventure five years ago, we set about to create the world’s healthiest pizza skinned in a business model that would scale. We needed scale if we ever hoped to achieve any kind of cultural influence – a voice, a seat at the big kids' table. For scale, we chose the John Deere tractor of QSR – carry out and delivery pizza. As for that world’s healthiest pizza idea, we channeled the nutritional alchemists of our ancestors to create a great tasting pizza that more closely resembles whole foods our genome would recognize as food.
Our argument has never been that a healthier pizza is going to save the day, but rather that every “new” business should and can have a social strategy – a strategy that positively impacts someone or something along the continuum. A benefit. If you don’t, then maybe you don’t have a business. That fragile balance that exists between profitability and social conscience is often where most of the do-gooders pull up short and never become the force for good they hoped to be.
Our thought process has been that as long as we execute on the disciplined business end of the arrangement – operations, operations, operations – coupled with a social consciousness and some science under the hood, customers will see a benefit. Combine this with cool technology and something we call "Cha-Ching 2.0." – purchases can now immediately be turned into conversations. At a minimum we would have a business that makes money and possibly a new business meme all together.
In a business that has traditionally relied upon mass media, door hangers and the promise that “if you order from us, you can plan the next 30 minutes of you life,” turning a product into a conversation is not an obvious model. But the reality of social commerce really hit home after launching our first international location in Dubai on January 17.
The Dubai Difference
After spending some time evaluating the Dubai market prior to launching, we decided to highlight other aspects of our business over the health attributes of our product. The “healthier” positioning of our product offering is not necessarily front and center in the U.S. market either, but it does represent a common thread in our conversations. For our Dubai debut, we elected to differentiate on our service and operations. This meant great tasting pizza delivered hot and fast by a guy wearing a cool jump suit. Additionally, we altered our name slightly for cultural reasons, which initiated some interesting and ongoing conversations.
By highlighting our operations in a new country over the more obvious healthier profile, this gave us a bit of a clean slate and a Petri dish to watch our brand unfold into what customers say it is – not what we say it is per se. The launch of our first international location has been all the more interesting given our franchisee for the region (who, by the way, will open six stores in Dubai this year). Months before the store opened, the franchisee set up a local Facebook and Twitter account and started talking about the brand.
Even though we did not have a pizza to sell, we started a conversation with future customers. These ran from “Coming Soon” to “Check out the guy running the plumbing in our soon to be open store” to “Did you know our pizza is made with 10 different seeds and grains?” and so forth. As trivial as it appears, it opened a forum with future customers and, importantly, allowed them to ask questions about the brand and see how we might behave, more or less. It revealed that we were different – just a little bit off, a little bit funky, and all about trying to make a difference. It was real.
By the time we opened the doors on Jan. 17, locally we had about 1,000 Facebook fans/likes and 1,200 Twitter followers. In the weeks following the opening, we were taken aback by the volume of online conversations about the brand. Below is a quick summary of a couple of hundred tweets following the opening listed in order of frequency.
Amongst the couple of hundred tweets, 28 percent were promotional in nature – i.e., customers and non-customers suggesting (unsolicited) that others check us out and so forth. Striking were the so few comments about the health aspects of our pizza. As mentioned, we did not dial up the health conversation during our launch, but it is very present in our communications across various digital and physical platforms.
It is clear that certain categories and products will naturally be part of a social conversation but carry out and delivery pizza has not been one of them. In the world of Cha-Ching 2.0, our relationship with a customer does not end with a transaction at the cash register – quite the opposite. It does not end until they share that activity with their friends via social media. According to an Econsultancy survey, 90 percent of purchases have some sort of social influence.
In the case of Dubai, nearly 50 percent of the conversation is about product, service, and image. Add into this general promotion and health comments, and a whopping 82 percent of the conversation is about benefit. Simply put, consumers want to share if there’s a benefit and don’t mind being identified with that brand. And it’s the influence among those friends and secondary relationships that is the sweet spot – the Holy Grail. Becoming part of the their identity drives repetitive purchases.
From Day One, we have supported this conversation with fast delivery, transparency of operations and product via short videos posted online, blog posts about our perspective on health, and so forth. In other words, we haven’t used social networks as a broadcast medium just to pound out specials and deals, but rather as a multi-channel to engage our customers in a conversation. We have morphed from a retail brand into a publisher and woven ourselves into the fabric of the conversation. While we cannot stop the negative comments, our active engagement and brand ethos increase the likelihood of a good set of informed conversations if we do what we say and make it right when we don’t.
The idea that social influence does not end with the people you know should take your breath away if you are building a brand. More importantly, if you are not creating a benefit then the relationships will not be meaningful and you only succeed in watering down whatever connections you worked so hard to establish.
Dubai has been an eye opener for us in demonstrating that we can plus up an aspect of our business and watch it drive and shape a good portion of the conversation around our brand. This lends some credence to the idea that even though marketers may have lost control of their brands online (that your brand is what customers say it is and not what you say it is,) what you do and how you choose to engage does matter. Now that we have firmly established a conversation around our operations in Dubai, it will be interesting to see how the conversations shifts, if at all, as we slowly dial in additional conversation around our healthier offering and our two-cents on the plough-to-plate conversation around food. We hope it provides additional validation on their decision to align with our brand, further deepening the relationship.
Will our industry be able to wobble board and door hang its way into the future? Probably not. We believe embedding our business ideals into the communities we serve and connecting with them halfway, on their terms, is the only way forward. We are starting to view the prescribed delivery area around our stores and clusters of stores as social biomes: complex and dynamic social and biotic communities characterized by knowable digital platforms maintained under a given set of economic and geographical realities. To be a successful participant, we will need to keep an ear to the ground, as the relationship is mostly in their hands. That said, rather than viewing the house at the corner as static, a place to send direct mail or to hang a menu, it really is a node with possibly 2.5 Facebook accounts on the inside, a few email addresses, and a handful of Twitter and Foursquare accounts. BEWARE: influencers live here, so behave.
As customers increasingly text, tweet and post their way in and out of their communities’ social biome, it’s clear social influence and the medium that delivers it have become so intertwined in our daily ability to interact and function as a species, that we have become a true biological and digital super-organism. No longer limited or defined by biological processes, we have transcended into a larger community and are witnessing nothing less than evolution itself.
I’ll have that tiger blood now - think I’m gonna need it.
Jeff Leach is the co-founder of New Orleans-based Naked Pizza. Jeff is currently completing his PhD in anthropology and has published widely in nutrition, medical and anthropological journals. Through Naked Pizza, Jeff hopes to influence public health policy in the U.S. and demonstrate that pizza can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.