Papa John’s Pizza Contest Pairs Social Media and R&D

Lots of companies are using social media to pick customers’ brains for product improvements. But pizza chain Papa John’s is going way beyond that, welcoming customers into its R&D and marketing departments via a promotion on Facebook and Twitter.

The national social marketing initiative is called Papa’s specialty pizza challenge, and it is putting three customer-designed pizzas on the menu for the month of August. The company has given $1,000 to each of the pizza creators to promote her pie and the highest selling pie will remain on the Papa John’s menu after August. The winning pizza designer will get one percent of the sales of her creation, up to $10,000, plus $480 worth of free pizza a year for 50 years.

The contest started in April with Papa John’s using its Facebook page and Web site to ask customers to submit original pizza recipes, including clever names for the pies and a 250-word description of what makes each one unique. By mid-June, more than 12,000 recipes were submitted. The company chose 10 semifinalists, based on taste, creativity and the quality of the description. Of those, three pizzas were chosen on June 29 by a judging panel that included company president “Papa” John Schnatter; Food Network star Ted Allen; Rich Eisen of the NFL Network; and Adam Kuban, founder of Serious Eats blog.

Initially, online buzz about the contest was sluggish, (a video of the judging on YouTube got only 164 views in July), but then the finalists got into the act, using social media to drum up interest among their existing online networks. The winners were not selected by the size or activity of their social networks, “but to win, users had to express themselves in an entertaining, succinct way in their pizza descriptions and pizza names,” says Jim Ensign, Papa John’s VP of digital marketing. “So it is not surprising they have strong networks,” because those are the “creative qualities” that attract loyal online communities, he says.

Each finalist is using a different marketing approach; all are posting regularly on Facebook and related blogs and frequently on Twitter. Blair Dial, a Springfield, IL marketing director, is promoting her “Big Bonanza” pizza with online endorsements from organizations such as the Illinois Pork Producers Association. The recipe calls for barbecue sauce, bacon, beef, ham, jalapenos, onions and tomatoes.

Barbara Hyman, a Los Angeles holistic healer, promises that a portion of the prize money will be donated to the National Wildlife Federation if her “Cheesy Chicken Cordon Bleu” creation wins.

Kendra Chapman, a Ball Ground, GA volunteer firefighter, offers a spicy pepper and sausage pizza called “The Workin’ Fire,” and is distributing online flyers to the firefighting community with a picture of herself in uniform.

So far, according to the Papa John’s site, Dial’s barbecue and bacon pie has 925 Facebook likes, more than double that of its competitors. The company is also promoting the contest via search, mobile, and online display ads.

To make the initiative work, Papa John’s had to break through some traditional silos, says Ensign. “The PR and research and development departments are working together with marketing on this,” he says. “Our corporate chef is backing these [customer-created pizzas] as passionately as he backs his own creations.” To get the corporate rank-and-file excited about the rivalry among the finalists, the company flew the three winners to the company’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, where they told their stories to the employees.

“The three finalists of Papa’s Specialty Pizza Challenge made a trip to Papa’s ‘House’ on Thursday, 8/5, to make their now famous pizzas & to present them to the entire Papa John’s corporate office. It was a great event & everyone agreed they were delicious!” wrote the company on its Facebook wall recently, including photos of the contestants’ visit.

But is the contest just a gimmick to boost brand awareness, or will the company now look to customers as product designers and marketers? It’s no gimmick, insists Ensign. “Rather, it’s a way to leverage what we already do, talking to our customers about quality and getting ideas for new pizzas from inside and outside the company. Now, we are making it more public.” The social media elements are a “natural evolution of our use of word-of-mouth. The technology gives us more tools,” he says.

Related reading