Better Inclusion. Better Perception.

By Freddie Haydn-Slater

Until fairly recently, companies didn’t have to focus too heavily on corporate social responsibility and developing purpose platforms. Now we live in an age of brand transparency due to the viral nature of social media and the speed with which news can travel. One recent example of a brand whose reputation has suffered is Papa John’s.

Papa John’s is an American pizza franchise with over 5,000 stores worldwide and $1.78 billion in revenue, reported in 2017. Since opening in 1984, the company has used its founder (and former CEO until 2017) John Schnatter as the friendly face of the brand. Not only has he appeared on printed promotional materials and TV ads, his illustrated face has been featured on every pizza box delivered to customers.

Following the admittance of using a racial slur during a company conference call with a marketing service provider, John Schnatter, Papa John’s spokesman and majority shareholder, was removed from all print and recorded marketing materials and announced his resignation as board chairman.

Regardless of context, this kind of behavior does not sit well with such a diverse customer base. Although most Papa John’s franchises are locally owned and operated, the company’s brand reputation was severely impacted by public outrage. Coupled with the backlash following Schnatter’s comments about how the NFL and the #TakeAKnee movement had negatively impacted pizza sales, the company was facing a true PR nightmare from an executive positioning standpoint. This case illustrates the danger of having a single spokesperson for a company that isn’t media trained paired with an ineffective PR team.

When a company aligns itself closely with a single spokesperson, they may inadvertently align their brand with something that goes against company values. This is a risk some companies take in order to establish and give their brand a unique voice and personality. As marketers, we know that contingency plans must be put in place for PR emergencies, commonly known as crisis communications. We prepare for these situations to ensure a proactive response and minimal time between the incident and the response.

After announcing that Schnatter would no longer be the company’s spokesperson, Papa John’s quickly launched a campaign focusing on the real employees, dubbed “Voices”. The campaign features short video clips highlighting the fact that Papa John’s franchises are operated by hardworking individuals who form the company’s backbone. “Much like Better Ingredients. Better Pizza., our people are the key ingredient to a better company,” remarks a statement on their website. Papa John’s took this PR nightmare and turned it into an opportunity to showcase the talent and loyalty that is alive and well within their company, while also setting a new standard for the fast-food industry by showcasing their commitments to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Photo: Papa John's

This strategic move for Papa John’s was effective as the impact of their new campaign is larger than the backlash the company received for Schnatter’s remarks. The company continues to distance itself from the former CEO and has put all of the emphasis on the cohesiveness of their brand. Efforts are even being made to drop the apostrophe from “Papa John’s” in order to bring awareness to “Papas” who are not Schnatter and build a more unified brand. Endeavor Global Marketing, the agency hired by Papa John’s following Schnatter’s controversial comments, was brought on as the Agency of Record in August, soon after Schnatter resigned. With the newly appointed marketing guru, Bozoma Saint John as CMO, this quick strategy was implemented in an effort to renew Papa John’s image.

However, there is a difference between companies having the appearance of diversity and actually implementing inclusive policies. In today’s media landscape, there is a high demand for transparency and expectation for action if values do not align with the moral compass of the public. This has caused a shift in many large companies to focus on corporate social responsibility, whether it be related to diversity, sustainability or wider philanthropic efforts.

Does the public think Papa John’s response is enough? Or will more pressure cause the company to take additional measures to renew their brand. Regardless, Papa John’s has taken a proactive first step in responding to criticism and has provided a strong D&I example for similar brands to follow.


Watch the full “Voices” Campaign video here.