Pennsylvania Shows Democrats Can Learn From Domino's

Maybe, Like the Pizza Chain, the Party Should Admit Its Product Is Flawed

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
Has Domino's given Democrats a playbook to skirt disaster in the midterm elections? It seems to have worked in Pennsylvania.

Domino's strategy was to admit that its pizza was pretty bad, to explain that it's taken the criticisms to heart, and show how the chain has improved it. The result was a 14.3% increase in same-store sales for the first quarter, a fast-food record.

Domino's CMO Russell Weiner credits the honesty in the ads that addressed consumers' distrust of many things (beyond pizza) such as banks, media, government and corporations in general.

This distrust hasn't been conducive to good old-fashioned brand-building -- at least until Domino's campaign came along. The same kind of raucous political discourse that has driven Democrats and Republicans further and further apart has the capacity to erode brand loyalty across a wide spectrum of products. Angry and distrustful voters are the same people as angry and distrustful consumers, and their allegiance to one candidate or one product is under intense strain.

Last week incumbents from both parties felt that anger and distrust. As USA Today noted, "Elections in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Kentucky became the latest test of the nation's sour mood, as lingering high unemployment and President Obama's ambitious agenda allowed a new crop of candidates to claim the mantle of change."

A Democratic winner in Pennsylvania, Mark Critz, seemed to follow the Domino's strategy. Mr. Critz cast himself "as an opponent of much of the Democratic Party's agenda," including health-care reform, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Domino's has burned the bridges for other consumer-goods marketers to fall on their swords and proclaim their product equally lousy. If any other company tried the tactic, people would immediately think of Domino's and realize how calculating and hypocritical the copycats were. But it's hard to figure what Domino's will do to keep the momentum going.

Even though Domino's ads seem to pre-empt other marketers from the same approach, the look-how-bad-we-are tactic can be used by local politicians, especially Democrats fighting for survival. The Domino's lesson is that you don't have to be the best, only better than you were.

David Stone, managing partner of New England Consulting, pointed out that "even the new and improved Domino's product is not better than most of its competitors', but its positioning and execution are, and that's what's driving business."

The most important thing for Democrats (and for the few Republicans that are running behind Democratic opponents) is to admit that their product has left a bad taste in voters' mouths. It's tough for Democrats to loosen connections with the administration, but voters seem so disenchanted with what's going on in Washington that a disavowal of everything President Obama has accomplished might just be the road to credibility.

One of the reasons the Domino's ads have been so successful is that the company's admission of mediocrity and worse was so unexpected (heck, I didn't even realize their pizza was no good). A long-range problem is that, sooner or later, consumers are going to start wondering why Domino's offered an inferior product for so long, especially when it fully realized its pizza crust tasted like cardboard.

Democrats are in a more favorable position. They can claim there was nothing wrong with their product until President Obama's "ambitious agenda" took hold. (They can't be blamed for opposing President Bush -- many Republicans had the same problem with him.)

In the Domino's spot announcing the pizza makeover, CEO Patrick Doyle throws down the gauntlet: "There comes a time when you've gotta make a change." Then the TV spot cuts back and forth between a focus group of Domino's customers and company employees watching video of the focus group.

Cut to a participant. "Pizza. Where's the love? How hard? It's bread, sauce, cheese, fresh ingredients. It doesn't feel like there's much love in Domino's pizza." Other participants say the crust tastes like cardboard, the sauce tastes like ketchup. Cut to Mr. Doyle: "You can either use negative comments to get you down, or you can use them to excite you and energize your process in making a better pizza. We did the latter." Cut to Meredith Baker, product manager: "Most companies hide the criticism that they're getting, and we actually faced it head-on." Cut to employees clapping: "This is what's driving us. This is what's lit the fire under us. This is what's making us want to get better."

So can't you picture a spot from a downtrodden Democrat: "There comes a time when you know you've gotta make a change. Most candidates hide the criticism that they're getting, but I am actually facing it head-on. This is what's driving me. This is what's lit the fire under me. This is what makes me want to get better government."

I might have to wait 30 minutes for a Domino's pizza to be delivered, but I'm ready to vote for this guy right now.

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