On May 2nd, as Game 6 of the Wizards-Cavaliers playoff series drew to a close, reporters began filing reports on the lopsided Cleveland victory. Stories focused on the conclusion of a hard-fought series between two bitter rivals. But none of these reporters highlighted what would become the biggest news story of the entire night: Those in attendance had been witness to one of the biggest and most knuckleheaded marketing decisions in recent memory, and through the citizen journalism of observant bloggers, Papa John's quickly became aware of the magnitude of its mistake.
At the game, several Wizards fans were sporting t-shirts declaring Cleveland Cavaliers star Lebron James a "Crybaby." As a Wizards fan, I wasn't offended by the shirts, but as someone who works in marketing, I was stunned that the shirts were emblazoned with the Papa John's logo.
Later that night, I tracked down an image of the shirt and wrote a post titled, "Does Papa John's Hate the State of Ohio?" questioning why a national chain would attach its logo to such a divisive image. What was equally puzzling was how, in the Web 2.0 world that we live in, a national brand could think that it could behave in one time zone one way, and not have it impact the brand in another.
Twelve hours later, with still no signs of coverage from the mainstream media, the story was beginning to go viral. On NBA message boards and Ohio sports blogs people were buzzing about the news. By mid-afternoon, the popular sports blog Deadspin had picked up the story. Links to a website and Facebook group urging a boycott of the chain were beginning to circulate.
As online anger grew, Cleveland media rushed to cover the story, interviewing me to help gauge the online buzz surrounding the story and speaking with local franchise owners about the impact this could have on their sales. By early Sunday night, less than 48 hours after the conclusion of the game, Papa John's had issued a formal apology, donated $10,000 to the Cavaliers' youth foundation and announced that the company would be offering $.23 pizzas to those in the Cleveland area.
Having engaged in online PR and damage control for clients of mine in the past, I was impressed with the speed at which Papa John's recognized and addressed the situation. The company also showed respect for the medium in which the story first broke. Its online actions on Sunday afternoon foreshadowed the company's official public apology. Hours before a public statement, one or more individuals purporting to be from the corporate office in Ohio posted on blogs covering the story. Apologizing for the incident, they explained that the decision had been made by a DC area franchise owner without the knowledge or approval of the Papa John's corporate office.
The company also made what appeared to be a wise decision to capitalize on the media attention. Utilizing its brief national spotlight to offer a promotion, Papa John's made a valiant effort to turn a negative story about a mass marketing mistake into a positive story about the company's responsiveness to customer concerns.
Unfortunately, Papa John's didn't fully anticipate the impact of setting the price point for its promotion so low. The resulting chaos -- traffic jams, fights, angry employees and five hour lines -- probably negated some of the goodwill the $.23 pizza promotion generated.
Papa John's quickly learned the lesson that rivers and mountains don't stop the internet. News in your own backyard quickly becomes news in everyone's backyard. It's essential to always be listening to and observing what consumers online have to say about your brand. Pandering to consumers in one region by mocking the popular teams or athletes in another region is going to have consequences. This story may spur national chains to consider greater oversight of marketing by regional franchise owners, with the goal of preventing damage to the company's national brand image.
A few people have commented to me that this is the kind of classic marketing blunder that will be written about in marketing textbooks -- and I agree. The story has enough interesting hooks (star athlete, a trash-talking rivalry, taunt-based marketing and "rogue" franchisees) that the lessons learned from studying it could help prevent a similar mistake in the future.
If there's one thing we've learned with total certainty, it's that Lebron James won't become a spokesperson for Papa John's anytime soon.
Jon Eick writes the food blog sogoodblog.com and works as an online brand manager for New Media Strategies.