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Book Extract: From the horse's mouth

Using CEOs in advertisements can create a perception of warmth and trust among consumers, says a new book

Chris Malone & Susan T Fiske 

Back in 2009, Domino's was in the final stages of a chain-wide makeover with an entirely new set of recipes for its hand-tossed When it came time to shoot commercials in support of the new "Turnaround" campaign, Domino's ad agency didn't prepare a script or audition any actors. Instead, a documentary film crew was hired to interview Domino CEO Patrick Doyle, the company's head chef Brandon Solano, and a handful of other company employees. In their own words, each of them expressed to the camera the same direct, disarming sentiment: "We're sorry our old pizza wasn't very good."

Long before the ad campaign had been conceived, Domino's chief marketing officer, Russell Weiner, recognized that despite some improvements over the years, the quality of their pizza had not kept pace with customers' growing expectations. The Domino's team invested in two years of testing with countless combinations of ingredients to completely reinvent its pizza from scratch. In the end, they were able to create a pizza that testing showed was preferred over all competitors' offerings by a wide margin.

As Weiner contemplated how to introduce Domino's new pizza recipe, he understood he faced a challenge in breaking through to customers who had grown accustomed to Domino's mediocre fare. Weiner had even googled the phrase "new and improved," turn' ing up millions of hits. "It made me realize," he told Chris in an interview, "we can't just come out and say, 'Hey, we have a new and improved pizza!' It would be such a wasted opportunity."

Instead, Domino's executives decided that they would introduce their new pizza by first apologizing sincerely for their old pizza. And that apology would come from the top. According to the Domino's ad agency, "[W]e had Domino's CEO and other executives tell their own story of how they changed the pizza. This contributed to the honesty and the transparency that made the campaign so powerful."

After the documentary crew was finished, Weiner had the new commercials tested in advance of their debut during the December 2009 NFL playoffs. That's when he knew that Domino's message would strike a nerve with viewers. Test viewers gave the ads some of the highest marks ever garnered by a fast-food commercial. "It was by far, by far, off the charts," Weiner said.

Almost immediately after its launch, "Domino's Pizza Turnaround" proved to be one of the most successful restaurant ad campaigns of all time. Same-store sales at Domino's increased 14-3 percent during the first quarter of 2010, the largest single-quarter gain in the entire history of fast food. In 2009, Domino's had lagged in growth behind almost all its competitors, but Domino's revenues in 2010 climbed faster than those of any other US quick-serve restaurant chain, including McDonald's and Starbucks. "People said to us, 'Oh, did you spend more money?'" Weiner recalls. "Believe it or not, the year we launched the new pizza, we spent less money than the prior year. It's just that the work was so powerful, it seemed like we were hitting [the airwaves] more."

Doyle, for his part, told QSR magazine in 2012 that he decided to appear in the Domino's ads because he knew that his presence would help the message break through. "When the CEO of a company goes out and says our old pizza wasn't very good, you're going to get breakthrough," he said. In 2011, a survey by Zeta Interactive named Doyle one of its "Top Ten Most Buzzed-About CEOs" for the year.

Doyle and Domino's are unusual in that most companies would rather that we never buzz about their CEOs. The main reason is that whenever there's CEO buzz, there's a good chance the buzz is bad. CEOs often make the biggest headlines of their careers by saying things they wish they hadn't. Consider the controversial comments of Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy about gay marriage and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's remarks equating Obamacare with fascism. The CEO in each of these cases managed to alienate many people who might otherwise have become or remained satisfied customers, while distracting his team and employees from more important concerns.

Normally, most CEOs enter the limelight only when forced by disaster or threat of disaster. That's when, under the stress of fluid circumstances, poor phrasing can become almost as big a problem as the problem itself. Whether it's BP's Tony Hayward whining about wanting his life back or Bank of America's Brian Moynihan feebly claiming his bank's "right to make a profit," such gaffes are commonly held out as reasons why senior executives should stay away from the public and the media. Conventional wisdom in corporate communications says that top leaders should be kept away from public view because the risk is too great that they will embarrass themselves and the company.

Social media in particular is seen as a growing threat in this respect. "in the YouTube age can be a dangerous forum for the boss to personally deliver the brand's message," one veteran ad exec told Age in 2009. "You'd better be sure your CEO is capable and believable, and that his or her message is likable and worth watching before you put him or her in front of the camera and in the line of fire from digital tomato throwers." That might have been wise advice during the Middle Ages of Marketing, but the mobile, social, and digital age leaves no place for CEOs to hide. They might as well get used to public exposure, even if, on occasion, they're required to dude some "digital tomatoes."

It is in our human nature to seize on gaffes and misstatements from powerful business leaders. They burn in our memories because such offhand remarks by CEOs in particular offer a rare glimpse into the true intentions of the powerful companies and brands they lead. Just as we are compelled to judge companies and brands as though they were actually people, we base those judgments on what we know or can infer about the real people behind each company - their warmth and competence and hence the warmth and competence of that company.

So when we hear Dan Cathy's religious objections to gay marriage, some of us wonder if it is evidence that Chick-fil-A's culture might be similarly intolerant of other social groups. For others, though, the comment might reflect evidence of a company devoted to "traditional values." John Mackey's principled distaste for federal regulation of health care might make some of us wonder whether he is also dismissive of other federal regulations - wage regulations, food regulations - that might cast doubt on the soundness of Whole Foods' operations. We consider such questions because it's in our nature to wonder how the words of anyone with power will affect us. We try to infer from their comments how their warmth and competence, and their true intentions, might have consequences for our own lives.

By admitting on national television that they all need to improve at serving and satisfying customers, and his team provided Domino's customers with a surprisingly candid show of emotion. That such a distinctively open and honest approach resulted in the greatest single-quarter revenue gain in fast-food history is an impressive testament to the power of expressing one's worthy intentions. Pizza Turnaround did much more than arouse customer interest in a new pizza recipe. The ad acknowledged poor past performance and requested forgiveness. Customers could accept the apology by picking up their phones and trying the new recipe. Millions of them did.

The quality we find so appealing when we encounter authentic emotions on the faces of people behind otherwise faceless corporations is what social psychologists call "concreteness." In most of our interactions with companies and brands, concreteness is absent. Instead, we engage in an exchange based on abstractions, which direct our general behavior (making purchases) but tend not to engender true loyalty. For instance, prior to Pizza Turnaround, nearly everyone experienced the Domino's brand as a set of abstract symbols and metaphors - televised ad images of steaming pizzas, the distinctive red-white-and-blue box, the domino logo, and the famed reputation for speedy delivery.

AUTHOR: Chris Malone, Susan T Fiske
PRICE: $27.95
ISBN: 9781422187173.

Re-printed with permission from 'The Human Brand: How we relate to people products and companies'. Copyright Wiley. All rights reserved

First Published: Mon, February 24 2014. 00:09 IST