Commentary

Papa John's Adds Some Shaq Value To Its Ailing Brand Image

After a couple of years of controversy, upheaval, declining sales and slumping stock prices, Papa John’s has drafted basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal to not only join its board of directors but also serve as a roving marketing ambassador for the brand. In addition, he’s investing in nine stores in his hometown of Atlanta.

“The change comes eight months after founder John Schnatter's likeness was stripped from the pizza chain’s marketing materials and pizza boxes. The company’s North American sales tanked after a series of scandals involving Schnatter, which started with him blaming the NFL’s leadership for poor pizza sales. He stepped down as chairman after it was revealed that he used a racial slur on a conference call,” report CNBC’s Lauren Hirsch and Amelia Lucas.

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“The addition of Shaquille on the board, I think is really going to highlight what we need to do from a marketing standpoint to get those sales moving,” CEO Steve Ritchie said  Friday on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

The brand was “briefly hijacked by neo-Nazis as their pizza of choice” and “has been on a year-long quest to rehab its corporate image,” Tracy Jan reminds us in the Washington Post.

“The partnership with O’Neal could significantly boost the company’s quest to win back customers, especially among minorities, marketing experts say. But they caution against relying on ‘Shaq’ alone, as a ‘shiny marketing object,’ to accomplish that objective,” Jan adds.

“[O’Neal] is well-liked, without controversy and known as an entrepreneur. His involvement may help [minorities] to feel okay about patronizing the brand, especially in Atlanta,” Sonya Grier, an American University marketing professor who focuses on race, tells Jan. “His engagement may also help to create perceptions of the brand as community-focused and help to overcome the destroyed trust in the brand.”

Here’s Shaq’s “pitch” in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Rodney Ho: “So let’s make me a triple threat. I want to be on the board, invest in some stores. I want to be an ambassador for the brand. People have to understand we have a new hierarchy at Papa John’s. They relayed the message to me. I want to help cultivate a culture where everybody is loved and respected. That’s what it’s all about. We don’t have to get into all this nonsense.”

“This rebranding, while perhaps not quite as political in itself as, say, the recent Gillette ad about toxic masculinity, is in line with the strong statements many companies have made to establish themselves as upholding the progressive values that young Americans care about. In a time when the news makes it easy to feel like 2019 is an unending hellscape of sociopathy and incompetence, moves like this make it clear that the American people are informed and as such disinterested in putting their dollars toward businesses that don't align with our values,” writes Lizzy Saxe for Forbes

“As such, Papa John's needs white supremacists to buy its pizza about as much as Gillette needs the disgruntled trolls who made displays out of getting rid of their razors after that Superbowl commercial,” Saxe continues.

O’Neal is no stranger to gustatory offerings that would fail to make most nutritionists’ lists of good-for-you foods.

“He currently owns a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts franchise in Atlanta and previously owned 27 Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchises. In addition, he is the founder and owner of Big Chicken, a fast casual fried chicken restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Shaquille’s, a fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles, California,” according to the release announcing the deal. He also has a minority stake in the NBA’s Sacramento Kings franchise.

“Shaquille has an excellent entrepreneurial background, including as a restaurant franchise owner, and is a natural creative marketer. Shaquille has demonstrated great success through understanding the customer value proposition with product and brand differentiation,” says Papa John’s chairman Jeff Smith.

“Many are used to seeing O’Neal in the General Auto Insurance and Icy Hot commercials. Others are used to seeing him trade basketball jabs on TNT with Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. Like silly kids sometimes, their jokes can leave you in tears, and them too,” writes Tedra DeSue for CNN.com. 

“It seems odd that the jester/NBA legend now holds a seat on a major corporation’s board, but think about this. When it comes to food, the 7’ 1’’ and roughly 325-pound O’Neal isn’t just devouring it. He’s investing in it,” DeSue observes.

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