Pizza Hut, Papa John's Tap Sportscasters to Win March Madness Ad Battle

Pizza Hut Touts Wing Street; Papa John's Brags About Digital Delivery

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Big-name sportscasters Jim Nantz from CBS and Scott Van Pelt of ESPN are choosing advertising sides in the Pizza Wars.

Mr. Nantz, CBS's longtime lead announcer for NCAA basketball coverage, hawks Papa John's pizza in a TV commercial that debuted nationally Monday. Mr. Van Pelt, meanwhile, has been pitching rival Pizza Hut in TV ads airing during March Madness coverage.

Calling Mr. Nantz the "golden voice of the NCAA," Papa John's CMO Bob Kraut said the veteran play-by-play announcer is "synonymous" with March Madness.

The spot created by Zimmerman Advertising, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., follows the company's typically humorous, but hokey, ad formula.

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We see company founder John "Papa John" Schnatter, in his red shirt, personally delivering pizza to some celebrity endorser. This time he shows up at the man-cave of Mr. Nantz, which comes replete with flat screen TV's, blinking computers and reflector head statisticians in white shirts tracking Papa John's leadership in online ordering.

"You were the first pizza company to offer it nationwide. What's the secret?" asks Mr. Nantz. Papa John protests with a chuckle: "Jim, it's the pizza." The spot ends with the duo urging March Madness fans to order online pie at PapaJohn'

The new Papa John's ad execution may go for laughs. But the marketing strategy is serious, said Mr. Kraut. The nation's No. 3 pizza chain wants to claim "digital leadership" over Pizza Hut and Domino's Pizza by showing viewers it generates the highest percentage of sales online.

Papa John's now generates roughly 45% of sales on the Internet -- and expects to be the first chain to reach 50% sometime this year, said Mr. Kraut.

"We were the first to offer online ordering in every Papa John's location. Not in a certain party of the country. Not in terms of franchisees who said 'Yeah, I'll do it.' Our entire system in 2001 went online," he said. "You could get a pizza from us, from the smallest market to the largest market. Wherever we had a store, you could buy it online. That's what we were trying to get across with our message of digital leadership."

Pizza Hut goes for a more irreverent approach with Mr. Van Pelt in ads created by mcgarrybowen, Chicago.

In one spot, we see the SportsCenter anchor chowing down on Pizza Hut's "WingStreet" chicken wings with something of an expert: the Kansas Jayhawks mascot. The mascot writhes silently as he watches Mr. Van Pelt savor the wings of fellow fowl.

"You've got some beefy wings yourself there, big boy," Mr. Van Pelt says to the alarmed mascot, who thinks he's next.

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The ad campaign supports a Pizza Hut promotion offering free chicken wings to fans nationwide April 10 if a school with a "winged" name, or mascot, cuts down the nets after the championship game on on April 7.

As of Monday, three "winged" schools were still alive: the Iowa Hawkeyes; Dayton Flyers; and Louisville Cardinals. When the tournament started, there were a dozen including the now eliminated Kansas Jayhawks.

Pizza Hut is planning two TV new spots starring Mr. Van Pelt during March Madness, said spokesman Doug Terfehr. The nation's biggest pizza chain generates about 40% of sale online. Pizza Hut is especially "bullish" on customers ordering pizza through their mobile devices.

"We think we have a clear advantage there having introduced the first ever app in 2009, gaining incredible downloads before anyone else was on the platform," said Mr. Terfehr.

Due to the length of the tournament, March Madness piles up big dollars from Madison Avenue. During 2013, the tournament drew $1.15 billion in ad support, according to Kantar Media, making it one of the most lucrative post-seasons for any major sport.

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