Papa John's Health-Care Remarks a Missed Marketing Opportunity

Discussion of Costs Could Have Been an Honest Hero Moment

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Papa John's greatest innovation might be the dipping sauce, the best use of which is to do a high-calorie Lazarus number on its -- forgive me -- desultory crust. It's an American story. When you get lemons, you make lemonade. And when you're left with a shard of hard baked dough after gobbling though the cheese, sauce and toppings, you turn that crust into a fatty flavor wand of delight.

On Election Day, Papa John's CEO John Schnatter got the equivalent of a stale crust. His man, Mitt Romney, lost and with him the hope of repealing Obamacare, bete noire of much of the food industry, from Applebees to Darden. But instead of dipping sauce, he applied a rank remoulade of threats, scaremongering and cultural tone-deafness. Warning of price hikes and scaling back workers' hours, he said, "That's what you do, is you pass on costs. Unfortunately, I don't think people know [how much] they're going to pay for this."

Well, then tell us, Mr. Schnatter. Oh wait, you already did. Back in the summer, you told us Obamacare will add $5 million to $8 million in expenses (that 's less than 1% current operating expenses). And you said those costs would be passed on to consumers in form of a 10-to-14-cent price hike on pizzas. Check this article for a thorough look at the math.

So here's the proposition as I understand it: We pay an extra dime and a few pennies per pizza so that your employees can see a doctor when they get sick. My response is : Deal!

Maybe Mr. Schnatter, who's been both praised and pilloried for his position, was on to something here. Suddenly Obamacare, a massive piece of legislation whose costs are so unclear and so large they're difficult to grasp, was no longer an abstraction. It became a transaction -- a micro-transaction actually. Thought of that way, Mr. Schnatter was actually doing a better job marketing the bill than President Obama ever did.

There might even be a big idea here. At this point, the need to be transparent in pricing is a given. Try to pull a fast one, and the internet will find you out. But what about giving real visibility into components of a price, pulling back the curtains so we can see what we're actually paying for when we fork over our money? This isn't just corporate social responsibility hooey. It's a short leap from what's become a real trend: talking about supply-chain issues in brand communications. Think about Chipotle's "Back to the Start," one of the most lauded and popular campaigns in recent memory -- and it's all about where the burrito chain's ingredients come from. Why not talk about what percentage of a customer dollar is going to the product vs. the workforce and so on?

How might something like that go? Just dress Mr. Schnatter up in that red Papa John's shirt and dad jeans, put him in front of the camera, and instead of having him ham it up with Peyton Manning or Jeff Gordon with some of the worst acting this side of "The Wicker Man," hand him a script that says something meaningful. The message, which doesn't have to include anything about liking Obamacare, can talk in frank terms about those expected costs. But rather than gripe about them, he'll explain why those are being passed along and what they mean.

Done right, the CEO becomes a sort of hero, who's doing right by his workforce.

Doesn't this sound better than trying to scare the crap out of everyone?

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