OUT OF CONTROL

Domino’s, YouTube and the Wild, Wild Web

The problem with two-way communication is that it goes two ways.

 

The web opened new opportunities to engage and interact with consumers. But it’s also given voice to some of the crankiest, most vocally disenfranchised people on Earth. When any half-wit blogger can take a chunk out of your brand with a keystroke, how exactly do you control your message?

 

The obvious answer: you don’t. Less obvious: Nobody ever has. Brands exist in the minds of consumers, and minds are notoriously hard to control. Product, service and circumstance have far more to do with a brand than a company’s efforts to manage it. If the product mix is not up to snuff, the web makes it even harder to hide. For some brand managers that’s a curse. For others, salvation.

 

Take Domino’s Pizza. Long before the Internet, Domino’s had built a major international brand around their 30-minute delivery guarantee, which they celebrated in a 1983 ad campaign featuring a giggly troll who chilled pizzas for a living. When a troubled young man in Atlanta first saw the spots, he decided the tagline—Avoid the Noid—hit just a little too close to home. So Kenneth Lamar Noid grabbed a .357 pistol, stormed a local Domino’s and held two employees hostage for five hours, demanding, among other things, a free pizza. The incident was resolved without violence. It was not a disaster for Domino’s, but it was hardly a red-letter day in message control.

 

The real disaster struck 10 years later, when a St. Louis jury awarded $78 million to a woman who was run over by a Domino’s driver. The accident was one in a long series attributed to the 30-minute guarantee, which had, in effect, turned America’s streets into a game of Super Mario Kart. Domino’s CEO denounced the award but abandoned the guarantee, and with it a key competitive advantage.

 

Then last year, a new set of woes; a group of Domino’s employees filmed themselves snotting on pizzas and stuffing cheese into places where no cheese should go. The video was a huge viral hit and a PR nightmare for Domino’s. They spun. They managed. They texercised damage control. But as they dug deeper, they discovered something more disturbing than the video.

 

People detested their pizza.

 

“’Worst excuse for pizza I’ve ever tasted,’” intoned one Domino’s customer. “The crust tastes like cardboard.” “The sauce is like ketchup.” So numerous and vitriolic were the consumer reviews that together they amounted to a wholesale indictment of Domino’s product. But as devastating as it was, the criticism gave Domino’s the mandate they needed to take a life-saving risk.

 

They spent millions reformulating their recipe. They upgraded ingredients, changed suppliers, and revamped procedures worldwide. In December 2009, Domino’s rolled out the new recipe with a new ad campaign—this one designed to live on the web where both their problems and their markets now resided. The campaign was a stunning admission of failure on the one hand. On the other, it was a bold realignment of product and message, one that recognized candor and transparency as the new currency of online brands. Domino’s introductory salvo began with a TV campaign that showed their own customers blasting the product.

 

More and more, enlightened companies are starting to grasp the implications of losing control. They’re building new structures and schema around the burgeoning realities of the web. Most major airlines now use Twitter to address service issues directly, in real time. Coke and NetFlix have ceded control of their Facebook pages to the fans who first created them, accepting the bad along with the considerable good. And in March of 2010, Domino’s reported a 14.3 percent increase in same-store sales and an 18.1 percent growth in revenues, most of which they attribute to their reinvention.

 

Sometimes you just gotta lose it.