Pizza Hut Elevates Its Flavor Profile as a Recipe for Growth

Yum Chain Trades Kitschy Pies for New Lines With More Sophisticated Tastes That Appeal to Millennials

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Pizza Hut is going for less flash and more flavor.

The Yum Brands chain has built a reputation for attention-grabbing pie plays from the stuffed-crust pizza to the outlandish P'zone to last year's pizza with 16 cheese pockets. Naturally it was called the Crazy Cheesy Crust pizza.

But now, U.S. CMO Carrie Walsh is leading the chain into a more restrained and tasteful kind of innovation. Think less P'Zone, more garlic parmesan.

Ms. Walsh said Pizza Hut is responding to research that's found that consumers are increasingly seeking food perceived as higher quality and more gourmet with unconventional flavor combinations. The company started in January with its hand-tossed pizza, touted as having a "lighter, airier crust, cheese blended with five Italian flavors and now brushed with garlic-buttery goodness." It even included imperfections to give it an air of authenticity.

Carrie Walsh, U.S. CMO, Pizza Hut
Carrie Walsh, U.S. CMO, Pizza Hut

What followed was other more milliennial-friendly flavors, including garlic-parmesan pizzas (a five-cheese and a chicken-bacon-tomato variety) and three barbecue pizzas promoted by country singer and TV personality Blake Shelton. In addition to its standard TV spots using the chain's "Make it Great" tagline, the marketer is stressing digital-ad buys. A few weeks ago, Pizza Hut and Hulu inked a deal that will allow customers to order from within an ad rather than jump to a separate web page. Mobile is another priority. Ms. Walsh said as many as 40% of orders are placed by means other than phone calls. About half the digital orders have been from mobile through the Pizza Hut app. Pizza Hut's lead creative agency is McGarryBowen, and it recently tapped MRY to handle social-media strategy. It also works with Omnicom's TracyLocke on digital strategy and design and Publicis Groupe's Optimedia on media.

At close to six months on the job -- she was previously VP-marketing at the chain -- Ms. Walsh said she's barely gotten started. And, in fact, it seems as if it will take awhile for the strategy to gain traction. In the first quarter this year, the chain's U.S. same-store sales were down 5%, though analysts have said both new menu items and an increased focus on digital should help lift traffic. But Ms. Walsh plans to play to the brand's strengths. "It's about building on what has made this brand successful," she said. "It's an innovator, it's pop culture. And it's now putting our consumers at the front."

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