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Papa John’s Brand Image Besmirched on Social Network


by Kenneth Rudich

Six days into 2012, Papa John’s brand image suffered a black-eye when an employee described a customer as “lady chinky eyes” on the receipt. 

Customer Minhee Cho, 24, saw the derogatory characterization and then tweeted about it.  She also posted the above picture for the world to see.

Papa John’s, meanwhile, took swift action in an attempt to counteract the bad publicity.  They tweeted an apology to the customer, and they also let her (and the world) know they dismissed the employee for it.

So, will the brand’s black-eye heal or will it leave a permanent scar?

Brand Management Implications

If you’ve been following our blog of late, then you’ll know we’ve been concentrating a tremendous amount of effort on the notion of Brand Management in the Modern Era.  In the past few weeks, we’ve published four written posts and also produced a three-part video series on this very subject (look below this post for links).  Talk about timely, huh?

But all self-aggrandizement aside, this particular incident illustrates several points discussed in the material we’ve laid out about contemporary brand management (which included a brief fleshing out of Best Buy’s online Christmas shopping stumble, and the Greyhound brand getting caught in the cross-fire between Alec Baldwin and American Airlines).

First, it demonstrates the powerful influence social networking can have on a brand image, particularly if something goes awry.

Let’s face it: reports about a positive customer experience seldom capture the same degree of attention as do disclosures of something gone wrong.  This concept is akin to how the news media works: when a dog bites a man, it’s not news; but when a man bites a dog, it is news.  Similarly, when you meet people’s fulfillment expectations, it’s not news.  When you don’t, it’s news.

And the social media stage is so much larger than the stage any one individual would ordinarily have access to without it.  Now, “All the world is a stage!”

This is precisely the reason we recommend that modern brand management be both vigilant and vigorous – because you must not only build the brand up, but you must be relentless in protecting it, both internally and externally.

Marketing Value Chain Implications

We also discussed the concept of a value chain audit in relationship to brand management.  This particular misfire by a Papa John’s franchisee employee carries implications for the corporate value chain.  The effects potentially include the product component, the market component, the communications component and the influence of external forces.

The Product Component

Papa John’s is well advised to thoroughly reinforce the message that respectful and courteous service is as core to their product offering as quality food.  (One of the more damaging tweets, btw, questioned why someone who lives in New York would go to Papa John’s in the first place.  This upped the ante from an isolated incident of bad service to a degraded core product that claims: Better Ingredients.  Better Pizza.  Beware: social networking allows for matters like this to grow exponentially worse within the blink of an eye.)

They also should explore whether this is the work of a rare disgruntled employee; or if they have a more systemic employee problem.  In other words, they must attend to managing their internal brand image.  Otherwise, more disgruntled employees could well feed off this one bad behavior and make it spiral out of control, especially now that they’ve been shown the power of social networking.

The Market Component

They must assure the market that this kind of behavior is not only frowned on, but that they are taking proactive measures to prevent it, or something similar to it, from happening again.  They should be transparent in showing it involves more than merely reiterating corporate policy, but also includes employee training and rewards to support the policy on a regular basis. 

They will also need to gauge the extent to which this episode — including the above-mentioned tweet about their core product — has impacted the public perception of their brand.  Has it alienated enough to erode the current customer base?  Will it affect the arrival of new customers into their pipeline? 

The Communications Component

Given the above, there’s an internal communications element and an external communications element.

Both require a tactical strategy involving means, mechanisms and, most important of all, creative inspiration, for achieving what must be accomplished in the product and market components of the value chain.  The ideal scenario is to win internal and external engagement that fosters a visibly healthy relationship between the two.

Also, in light of Papa John’s current ad campaign, in which it claims to be the official pizza of the NFL, the timing of this circumstance could hardly be worse.  Serious thought must be given to the potential ramifications for that campaign.

The External Forces

The single biggest external force and major concern is that this is an extraordinarily competitive industry.  Current and potential customers have an abundance of choices, and they don’t necessarily need much cause to look elsewhere.  Indeed, the offended customer herself outright stated she is unlikely to do business with Papa John’s again.

Brand Healing or Scarring

In summary, we believe Papa John’s response to date will be insufficient to offset the blemish their brand name has sustained.  It will require considerably more vigor.  They must show themselves to be far and away customer-centric and also socially responsible; and they must do it in a manner that is forthright.  In short, they must commit to addressing the elephant in the room.

Above all, they must hope this circumstance doesn’t get further aggravated by an untimely recurrence of something like it.

What do you think?


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