NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Melissa Richards-Person, who joined Papa John's in September as senior director-advertising and promotions, was tasked with maintaining sales and market share during one of the toughest markets in recent memory. Papa John's cemented its position as a third-place-competitor-to-be-reckoned-with only in the past few years, making a name for itself by boasting "better pizzas" made from "better ingredients." But with the recession, consumers have been increasingly looking for discounts.
The chain is also outspent by rivals Pizza Hut and Domino's nearly two to one. Last winter, Pizza Hut launched a new ad campaign and began promoting $10 pizzas, a deal that helped pull the brand out of a sales slump. Domino's launched an entirely new pizza recipe, and increased ad spending to tout it.
"We found ourselves in the middle of a pizza war," Ms. Richards-Person said, noting that competitors had spent most of 2009 promoting pasta, wings or sandwiches. Suddenly, all eyes were on the core product, and at heightened media levels.
"We decided to hunker down and use every creative weapon in our arsenal," she said. Papa John's upped the ante on a number of sports-team sponsorships, and crafted a deal with the National Football League to air a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.
The result was Papa John's first meaningful Super Bowl Sunday sales bump. While it's one of the biggest pizza delivery nights of the year, Ms. Richards-Person said, the big game hadn't traditionally been much busier than an average Friday night -- until the brand participated. The program was so successful that Papa John's has an agreement with the NFL to run spots during the organization's air time for the next three years.
"She's helping to really elevate the Papa John's brands, and it's not like there's money to burn," said Andy Donchin, director-media investments at Carat. "But they're doing things that are very smart, very on-target , very innovative and bottom-line."
Moving forward, Ms. Richards-Person said she's looking for creative ways to underscore Papa John's quality. For instance, a contest running on Facebook asks customers to create their own specialty pizza, name it, tell a story about what inspired the recipe, and rate its appeal and flavor profile. The winning pizza will be featured on the menu and the chef will get a slice of the sales.