The ‘Dominos’ Effect: Pay Attention to your Customers, A View from the Brand Perspective

This is a story about a brand journey in social media. It is about a highly visible brand whose experience within the social media space had a tremendous impact to consumer perception about their brand, their operations, and ultimately revenue.

Dominos Pizza. This is an interesting social media example because of the strong media coverage that resulted from the events that have preceded Dominos in the last year. Chris Brandon of Dominos Pizza is here today to give us his company’s view and how it has changed the way they do business.

Q: Welcome Chris! Could you please tell us about your role within Dominos?

CB: Hi…appreciate the opportunity to talk with you guys.  My role within Domino’s, among some other event-related responsibilities, is management of our entire PR effort – including consumer PR, media relations, social media, local outreach, etc.  The only facets of PR that I am less involved with are investor relations, and for the most part crisis communications.  We have people on separate teams that are full-time dedicated to that.

Q: Now let’s take you back a few years to 2008! Prior to the boom in social media
What did Dominos do to initiate engagement with its consumers?  Either online or offline?

CB: We have been engaged with customers through social media for about a year and a half now…certainly our new pizza launch has taken things up a notch – as we are using social media more so than ever before – but we have been active in the spectrum for about a year.  We were on Twitter, on Facebook, monitoring blogs, etc.  Much of that led to hearing what customers were saying about our pizza, and realizing there was room for improvements – which is exactly what we eventually did!

Q: In 2008, how would you have rated yourself as a Marketing Company in terms of audience engagement? 1 being poor vs. 5 being strong

CB: A rating like that is difficult to say…but we have always been in tune with what our consumers have had to say – as recently demonstrated by our “thanking” them for inspiring us to continue to improve, and by how we communicated our new pizza launch.  We have only gotten better.  Social media has helped that, as we can communicate with them directly in ways that were not available before.

Q: Let’s take you back to spring 2009 when a video appeared in Youtube: revealing a Domino’s employee in a NC franchise assembling sandwiches and inappropriately handling ingredients before putting these same ingredients on the bread. It didn’t take long for that video to go VIRAL and soon that video was encroaching on one million plus views.

Tell me about what was happening within Dominos at that time? What was the immediate reaction?

CB: We were aware of the video within 45 minutes of its being posted. Our immediate reaction was to distribute still shots of the video nationwide in an attempt to identify the culprits. We found them before the day was over. We closed the store, contacted the franchise owner, the police and the health department. We contacted YouTube in an attempt to get them to pull it down (they wouldn’t – citing the fact that we weren’t the “copyright owner,” although all the trademarks in the video belonged to us and were being used improperly).

Q: Here is what one of the blogs said about the Dominos response time:

“The company did not publicly respond to the video immediately, hoping attention would subside. But when it became clear by mid-week that the controversy was only escalating, Domino’s executives acted. The company posted an apology on its website and asked employees with Twitter accounts to tweet a link to it. “

Now it took more than 48 hours after the video had significant reach and press. Why didn’t Dominos act sooner?

CB: Frankly, this person doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. We didn’t wait 48 hours to respond – we were on it within the first hour.

Our first priority was to identify the culprits, then close the store, then get the video removed. We communicated internally and we communicated to YouTube and to other sites (such as The Consumerist), which had reposted it. That all happened in the first few hours. The following day, we posted a note on our company site explaining that we had found them, had their employment terminated and that they were facing arrest. On Wednesday, when the video views hit 500,000, we decided to post our own YouTube response. The off-base commentary is funny to us: we did something no other company had done before – put the president on     YouTube to talk about the antics of two idiot (former) employees. Had we not done it, it wouldn’t have been done – so the idea that we did something unprecedented, but didn’t do it “fast enough,” is laughable.

Q: This new age of user-generated content with all its inherent social media tools can be a double-edged sword for businesses. On one hand it closes the gap to and endears you to your audience like nothing else. But it can also be just as powerful in exposing you to the darker side of engagement. Business owners are nervous about the vulnerability of their brands and the potential of unfair comments or attacks. Is that fair to say?

CB: We can’t speak for other business owners. We are not worried about a “darker side” of our business, because we don’t have one. We’re not hiding anything. We have embraced social media as a means to connect more directly with those consumers who choose to utilize these channels. It’s all about building a solid culture in your organization. Meanwhile, though, it’s prudent to remind employees that the trademarks are yours – and that they cannot photograph or video anything on your property without your permission.

Q: Let’s talk about your response video that occurred 2 days after the incident.
I read on one post that,  “this corporate mea culpa video has already been viewed more than 300,000 times, and it’s generated 3,000 comments. Plus, it’s the talk of Twitter, blogs, and the mainstream press (in the United States and abroad). It’s far and away the most popular video on Domino’s nearly 2-year-old YouTube channel. BUT your response was profound. “The ‘challenge’ that comes with the freedom of the internet is that any idiot with a camera and an internet link can do stuff like this – and ruin the reputation of a brand that’s nearly 50 years old, and the reputations of 125,000 hard-working men and women across the nation and in 60 countries around the world.”

How did this incident change things at Dominos? Was this the genesis of a wake-up call?

CB: When we made that comment, we were in the thick of the situation – our response, about ruining a brand, was in retrospect, dramatic. In the end, they did not ruin our brand, as our global reputation is much too strong to be done in by the likes of those two. Some facts:

• Domino’s had positive same store sales growth in 2009 – we led the category in same store sales growth, beating Papa John’s (flat) and Pizza Hut (negative), companies that didn’t have to face an incident such as this.
• Domino’s was ranked #1 in Customer Satisfaction by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (for the first time ever), right in the midst of this incident.
• Our share price continued to rise.
• In context, 1.2 million views sounds like a lot, but our own “Pizza Turnaround” video has been viewed 3.3 million times; the most-watched video on YouTube (Charlie Bit My Finger) has been viewed 168 million times.
• In the end, this was not a “crisis,” but a well-publicized annoyance. We are stronger than that. If anything, it provided us with a platform to remind our independent franchisees about the importance of hiring well.

Q: Provide me with how the mindset changed at the top of your organization and how that filtered down to employees and ultimately, your franchises.

CB: It gave us the platform to discuss the importance of hiring well. While it is true that “one bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch,” we made the case for all owners and managers to get rid of those bad apples – and they know who they are. A customer service business is reliant on people with great attitudes; we invited our franchisees to look at their workforce, and to make changes as they saw fit.

Q: Did that forever change the way you perceived the strength of your audience and ultimately how your processes changed internally?

CB: Domino’s customers saw the YouTube video for what it was: a hoax perpetrated by two individuals who showed extraordinarily bad judgment. In fact, what was most heartening about this incident was the number of calls and emails we received at our Customer Care Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which expressed support for us. Thousands of people let us know that they were behind us and that they would continue to order from us. While sales took a short-time dip in the few weeks following the incident, as our full-year sales results show, they came back stronger than anyone else in the industry.

Q: Your most recent campaign exemplifies a very transparent, and honest platform to tell the world that customers are not happy with Dominos Pizza.  Your site is called: The headline says, “New Domino’s Pizza – Oh Yes We Did.” The brutal honesty of consumers saying the “crust tastes like cardboard”; “Microwave Pizza is far better”; “The sauce tastes like ketchup”.

Your President and CEO Patrick Doyle says in this video, “You can use negative comments to bring you down or you can use it to excite you and energize your process to make a better pizza. We chose the latter.”

“We listened to our consumers. They want us to be better and we want them to like us again.”

You had to start over to do this. I’m sure you spent a lot of time and money on this endeavour.

CB: The new pizza was about a 2-year process.

Q: Why do this?

CB: Because the consumer told us we could improve…and we listened.  It’s always been important to us to not just say we’re listening – but to prove it.  We proved it, and are very pleased with the consumer response to the new pizza.

Q: You received some accolades from Stephen Colbert, Colbert-style. Dominos received the Alpha dog of the Week.  In part of his segment he says, “Dominos has a great new recipe…They have a game-changing ad campaign and they’ve been listening to you America…..It takes meatballs to stand up and say, “we suck”.

“Dominos boldly embraces the universal condemnation of their product and asks its customers to come back for more.”

How do you respond to that? And did it help or hurt your campaign?

CB: We were very excited to be named Stephen Colbert’s “Alpha Dog of the Week”…we loved it!  Obviously there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek in what he does, but the general message rings true — that we did stand up, admitted we could be better – and even thanked our customers for the inspiration.  I think Mr. Colbert through — his unique form of comedy — and many others, respect us for the ability to be honest and the approach we have taken.

Q: What have been the results to date? Have you seen a turnaround in brand perception?

CB: We are extremely pleased with the consumer response to the new pizza

Q: What are your customers saying now?

CB: Shortly after the launch, an independent third-party blind taste test revealed that the new pizza beat both Papa John’s and Pizza Hut in a national taste test…so not only have they been speaking highly of our Pizza Turnaround campaign – most important of all, they have spoken that our pizza is the best tasting!

Q: After the past year if you could synthesize the turnaround in the company how would you sum it up?

CB: When you listen to the consumer, work to improve on what they tell you can be improved, respect that customers today want honesty and transparency — and most importantly, have a very talented team in place — good things are bound to happen.

Q: Does social media NOW play an essential role in your organization? If so, how has this changed from a year ago?

CB: Like many others, we are continuing to learn more about social media, and have been for the past year and a half – as in many ways, it is still in its infancy as a communications and marketing tool.  Most of all, it gives us an avenue to continue to have open and honest interaction with consumers and Domino’s fans – and that is what we like the most about it.

Q: If you had any advice to give to big brands looking to dip their toe in social media what would you say?

CB: Keep up – cause it is constantly evolving.
Thank you so much for your time Chris.  Dominos will be one brand to look to, to set success benchmarks for customer engagement. We look forward to the evolution of Dominos as it unfolds in this new consumer-led era.


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