After Tumultuous Year, New Domino's CEO to Stay the Course

Departing Pizza Chain Head Dave Brandon to Face New Challenges as U of Michigan Athletic Director

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- On the subject of his accession to CEO at Domino's, J. Patrick Doyle is a master of understatement. "I don't know that you're going to see any major changes for the brand between [departing CEO Dave Brandon] and I," he said. "I don't think you need to see another dramatic change at Domino's."

New Domino's CEO J. Patrick Doyle says the pizza chain has had enough dramatic changes for a while.
New Domino's CEO J. Patrick Doyle says the pizza chain has had enough dramatic changes for a while.
The chain last month launched a completely revamped pizza, with new recipes for both its sauce and dough, running a refreshingly honest campaign from Crispin Porter & Bogusky in which Mr. Doyle, as spokesman, frankly admits that many consumers thought the company's pizza tasted like "cardboard."

The push was the culmination of a two-year-long effort to refine its recipe and is likely one of the most significant moves in the company's history, so it's arguably a good time to change horses. Domino's posted flat sales in the third quarter, when competitors were down about 2%, and its third-quarter 2009 profit of $17.8 million was up from $10.1 million in the third quarter of 2008.

"We've made a lot of bold steps in the last couple of years," Mr. Brandon said in an interview with Ad Age. The departing CEO is leaving Domino's to become the athletic director at the University of Michigan, where he will be taking an 82% pay cut. His salary at Domino's was $3.22 million; his new five-year deal at Michigan pays $560,000 annually.

"We made a lot of tough calls in terms of expanding our menu and changing our recipe," Mr. Brandon said. "We did some bold advertising. In the last year, we've launched so many platforms. Patrick, in our domestic business, has led that and led the strategy. I don't have any belief that things will change under Patrick."

Crisis communications
Mr. Doyle steered Domino's through last year's tumultuous public relations nightmare when an employee at a franchise in North Carolina was shown in a YouTube video putting mozzarella cheese in his nose and then on a pizza. The employee was also videotaped blowing his nose on a sandwich. The company was widely credited with masterful crisis communications over the incident, with Mr. Doyle as frontman in a YouTube video apologizing for the incident and explaining changes being made. The video racked up well over 1 million views.

As for his new role as CEO and advertising star, Mr. Doyle admits, "It's a little startling to be relaxing, watching a football game, and suddenly you're staring yourself in the eye." But Domino's has a habit of using its CEOs as spokesmen; Mr. Brandon himself appeared in a snarky ad last year, also from Crispin, in which he burned a cease-and-desist letter from Subway.

"Our ads recently have been more like reality TV," Mr. Brandon said. "It started with me and branched out with our team members and our customers. We just decided to play off of that, and let's go ahead and let the world know we felt like we disappointed some people."

Mr. Doyle said that his role in the new campaign was coincidental, and not part of a "master plan" to transition him into the CEO role, or part of a concerted effort to keep company executives central to the advertising. "If it sells more pizza and helps us be credible, then I'm happy to do it."

As for Mr. Brandon, he has his own challenges ahead at the University of Michigan, where he starred as a football player in the 1970s and later became a university regent. A $226 million project to add luxury suites to the venerable Michigan Stadium is near completion at a time when the state of Michigan's economy is one of the worst in the country. The stadium's tenant -- the football team -- is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1962-63. About 70% of the suites, ranging in price from $55,000 to $85,000, were sold last summer, but that was before the state's economy grew worse and before the football team lost seven of its last eight games.

"It's all about marketing," Mr. Brandon said. "We're in a situation where our football program needs to be competitive, needs to win, needs to go to bowl games, needs to keep our fans excited. Equally important is the game-day experience. It's about marketing and event-planning. We have to do a great job of providing game experiences for our fans."

Mr. Brandon said that, given Michigan's base of power as part of the Big Ten Conference, he will become involved in the struggle to change college football's method for determining a national champion. "I want to be very involved, and my new boss [school president Mary Sue Coleman] wants me to be very involved," said Mr. Brandon, who was a finalist for the position of National Football League commissioner in 2006 before withdrawing his name from consideration.

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