How to fall like Domino's


You remember 2009, don’t you? America was nearing the end of the recession, the world was in a state of grief after Michael Jackson’s passing, and Avatar made more money than any blockbuster before it. There is one event that occurred in April of 2009 that shaped the course of American history that you won’t find documented in any text books. I am, of course, referring to an incident that took place in a small Domino’s Pizza in North Carolina. One Domino’s employee filmed another putting cheese up his nose and onto sandwiches, putting boogers into meatball subs and using the sponge he used to clean the dishes to wipe his rear. This far from harmless video was posted to and in less than a day it was national news. 

The executives at Domino’s Farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan, were in a frenzy. They were living every fast food chain’s worst possible nightmare. The restaurant where the incident took place was closed temporarily, the employees were arrested and given probation, Domino’s President of U.S. Operations, J. Patrick Doyle, released a two-minute apology video (that no body watched), and executives at Domino’s responded to blogs and online articles to plead their case. Everyone was certain that this was the last we’d see of Domino’s Pizza.

What most people don’t realize is that Domino’s was simply coming out of the frying pan and going into the fire. The company had already conducted taste tests where they found that customers were more likely to dislike a pizza if they knew that it was from Domino’s. The executives at Domino’s Farms were beginning to come to grips with the fact that no one liked their main product. On top of all this, due to a handful of lawsuits and allegations, they had to drop the, “30 minutes or it’s free,” delivery policy that had made them stand out from other pizza services in the first place.

Domino’s could have folded right then and there, and many thought they would. Instead they began production on an ad campaign that was both self-deprecating and apologetic. Doyle himself went in front of the camera and shared some of the hardest critiques from Domino’s customers. “Their crust tastes like cardboard,” or “the sauce tastes like ketchup,” and “this is an imitation of pizza.” Doyle cringed at each tough comment and said, “We’ve got to do better.” Cut to the kitchen where Domino’s chefs went all the way back to basics. They started using a better, richer mozzarella, improved the garlic butter put on their crusts, took their sauce from bland to zesty and sweet - to top it off, they completely changed the rules on how the pizza is actually assembled in the store. Once the pizza was made, their next step was to get these pizzas into the mouths of those who’d had nothing nice to say about Domino’s! People who wrote negative reviews years ago were contacted and offered a chance to try Domino’s new pizza for free! Domino’s brought in people from old focus groups to try the new pizza for free! Domino’s also released a humorous commercial where they hunted down “Pizza Holdouts,” and marketed the new pizza directly to them, and if they responded they were given Domino’s brand-new pizza for free!

This ad campaign went viral in its own right and soon people were swamping their local Domino’s with orders for this new and improved pizza. In fact, Domino’s was selling so many pizzas they were close to running out of pepperoni on more than one occasion! 

Domino’s was honest about their pizza’s quality and it served them well, but then they took it a step further. They released an ad talking about all the work that goes into making a pizza look appealing for a commercial. Further, they explained about how that’s not really the product you’re getting when you order from them. Domino’s encouraged their customers to take a picture of the pizza ordered whether it be good, bad, or ugly. Domino’s received over 40,000 photos of pizzas! Some photos were good, some were bad, and a few were completely horrifying. Another ad was sent out where Doyle himself addressed one of these horrifying pizza photos depicting a half-cheesed pizza slumped in the bottom half of a pizza box with sauce spread everywhere. Doyle held a large print of this image and said, “This should never happen.” Domino’s responded to nearly every image sent either with a replacement pizza, a gift card, or a special discount! 

Domino’s has continued to show an immense amount of respect for their customers and continues to do their best to make your pizza ordering experience quick, easy and hassle free. Domino’s has rolled out some of the latest advances in pizza delivery technology: Ordering with a just an emoji, ordering with twitter, Facebook, text and an app that boasts a “zero tap” ordering system, or you can still just call if you like. Domino’s is now the 2nd largest pizza chain in the USA, studies have shown that they have better brand loyalty than most fast food chains, and they now have over 13,800 stores world-wide.

The lesson to take from this ‘Little Engine that Could’ story is that Domino’s addressed their short comings in a risky and bold way. They never should have let it get that far in the first place but upon realizing that they had they were not only open with the public about these short comings, they included them in the solution. They allowed the customers to join them on their road to a better brand and because of that the customers felt heard, they felt respected, and they felt like they were a part Domino’s improvement, like they had a hand in making Domino’s what it is today. And, in a way, they did. Without the comments, focus groups, sent pizza photos, audience participation, and reviews Domino’s would have gone under. Domino’s took a serious hit, but they turned their failure into something to rally around, to laugh at, and to build upon. They owned it. This is more than a lesson in marketing, this is a lesson in the power of humility. 

What does this mean for you? What can you take from this for your business? Issues, complaints, a broken work flow: these are just the imperfections in your system rising to the surface. When Domino’s imperfections rose to the surface it nearly costed them everything, but it’s still one of the greatest comeback stories in the last 15 years of business.  All other businesses face this same problem on a daily basis just on a smaller scale. Everyday a customer is leaving a review about how filthy one of their forks was, or calling up a business to chew out the first person who answered the phone because of how much time they spent waiting for their electrician to arrive, or badgering the nearest barista about how much whip cream they feel they deserve. With the age of the internet upon us customers have not only have a soapbox to stand on but an audience willing to listen in the form of social media, and a negative comment or unreasonable whine is just a click away. These complaints and negative reviews are often unnecessary and annoying, but how you and your customers react to these passionate people can make all the difference. You can take control of any confrontation with a customer simply by asking them to tell you what they believe the issue is and this truth remains true in person and over the web. Whether the complaint is right or wrong, if you or your team respond with humility, you can turn this unreasonable customer into a loyal patron.
Lucas Knauss

Lucas Knauss