NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Twenty-year old Michelle Leachman serves customers at a Pizza Hut in Idaho but dreams of competing in a demolition derby one day. Briana Rico, a 17-year-old aspiring actress who works at a Pizza Hut in California, says the best item on the menu is the Stuffed Pizza Rolls, while Pennsylvania native Ethan Washic is partial to the barbecue-chicken pizza.
In the coming months, consumers will get to know the likes and dislikes of these and a few other employees of Pizza Hut. That's because they're the stars of a new ad campaign that broke during Fox's NFL broadcast Sunday. The effort signals a directional change for the Yum Brands-owned chain that earlier this year touted $10 pizzas and 50 cent wings in the middle of a pricing war with rivals Dominos and Papa John's.
The new tack marks the first time in over a decade Pizza Hut will run national advertising that's purely about branding; the spots feature no new-product offerings and make no mentions of deals. As part of the creative by Interpublic Group of Cos.' Martin Agency, Pizza Hut is dumping its earlier tagline, "America's Favorite Pizza," replacing it with "Your Favorites. Your Pizza Hut" -- underscoring the restaurant's increased focus on wings, Tuscani pastas and other items not in the shape of a pie.
There are signs that Pizza Hut is beginning to gain some ground on category leader Domino's, which has 18.4% of the market compared to Pizza Hut's 15%. Domino's marketing strategy from Crispin Porter & Bogusky, which is something akin to "our pizza was gross, but we fixed the recipe," seems to be working. Domino's posted historic same-store sales increases earlier this year of 14.4% vs. Pizza Hut's 6%. But in the second quarter, Pizza Hut led same-store sales for Yum with an 8% lift, offsetting the 1% increase at Taco Bell and 7% decrease at KFC.
Said Brian Niccol, Pizza Hut's chief marketing officer: "We just need to incite the consumer to pull up the emotional side of the brand and the high-quality products we provide. Our pizzas, our pasta, the wings, the way they taste, the crust. ... We need to leverage that as opposed to, say, we've done anything wrong. ... Our brand stands for quality already ... we have no need to denigrate the brand in order to get people to engage with it."
That Pizza Hut is turning employees into spokespeople makes it one of several brands in the past year that have tried to personalize their companies by using homegrown marketing talent, perhaps not coincidentally, while struggling with the recession. Nationwide Insurance switched from using D-list celebrities such as Kevin Federline, Fabio and Sanjaya Malakar to using employees; Best Buy ran a series of ads called "True Stories" in which associates relayed stories about helping customers; and more recently, BP began using employees in a bid to convey honesty and transparency about its Oil Spill.
What's different for Pizza Hut is the way it went about it: a "Star Search"-like contest. A little over two months ago, a notification was sent out to all 7,500 U.S. restaurants announcing the "The Pizza Hut Casting Call." Employees were asked to submit short videos that highlighted their unique personalities to take part in a new ad push as extras.
Out of hundreds of submissions, four girls and four guys were selected, half of them age 20 or under. They were flown to Los Angeles for a one-week shoot, some accompanied by their parents because they're so young. Only once there were was it revealed that they would be featured as the new stars of Pizza Hut's ad campaign, with Martin Agency's Andy Azula -- a.k.a. "the UPS Whiteboard Guy" -- giving them a pep talk about what it's like to have a role in an ad campaign for the first time.
While it's not a goal of the campaign, the youthful skew could help connect with what Kurt Kane, VP-brand advertising at Pizza Hut, earlier this year told Ad Age is one of two of Pizza Hut's core consumer groups, families and young adults.
The commercials will be sprinkled in high-profile programming through the balance of the year with national network and cable media buys. TV presence will be supported by a social-media blitz during which a different employee will be featured each week, through YouTube videos, and dialogue on Pizza Hut's Facebook and Twitter pages.