CMO of the Week: Pizza Hut's George Felix

As a legacy restaurant brand that turns 63 this June, Pizza Hut means a lot of different things to different generations. So when George Felix took the reins as chief marketing officer in January 2020, he wanted to find an umbrella concept to bring all the brand’s different iconography into the 2020s.

As a legacy restaurant brand that turns 63 this June, Pizza Hut means a lot of different things to different generations. So when George Felix took the reins as chief marketing officer in January 2020, he wanted to find an umbrella concept to bring all the brand’s different iconography into the 2020s. 

The result is what Felix dubs “newstalgia,” a revival of classic Pizza Hut restaurant features like Tiffany lamps and red tablecloths that are being woven into the brand’s latest campaigns and virtual activations. “The idea of being distinctive and breakthrough is only going to be more important given the insane amount of messages that customers are bombarded with on a daily basis across every category,” Felix says. “We want to make sure that every time people hear from us it’s unmistakably Pizza Hut.”

That concept is at the center of Pizza Hut’s latest national campaign for its new Detroit Style Pizza, which debuted in select markets during CBS’ pre-game coverage of Super Bowl LV February 7. The spot takes an educational approach to how the Midwest take on the pie is made, and in its first month of release, the new menu item “has been a big hit for us,” Felix says.  

“Nationally, it’s probably the #1 trend in pizza right now  and if there's a big trend in pizza our fans should expect that Pizza Hut’s gonna have a take on it,” Felix says. “We were really proud to ignite the conversation on Detroit Style Pizza nationally, because so many people across the country hadn’t had access to it, and it’s been great to see the response. Detroit was actually our number one DMA in terms of sales, with 2.5 times the national average, so we’re really proud to see the response we’ve gotten there. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive response we’ve gotten nationally.” 

Such positive early traction should help Pizza Hut continue its momentum from a transformative 2020, which saw the brand’s dine-in sales take a sizable hit amid COVID-19 closures and safety protocols. Pizza Hut’s U.S. sales have been on a particular upswing, outperforming international locations with an 8% lift in same-store sales during the fourth quarter and a 3% increase for full-year 2020 according to parent company Yum Brands’ latest earnings report

Want to catch Felix live? Tune into Brand Innovators’ C-Suite & Marketing Leadership Livecast tomorrow (March 16) at 4:30p ET, where he’ll appear alongside Marianne Malina, President of Pizza Hut’s ad agency GSD&M, in a conversation moderated by Ken Harlan, founder & CEO of MobileFuse. Complimentary registration is available HERE

Ahead of the Livecast, Brand Innovators caught up with Felix from his home in Dallas to learn more about the past year in pizza pivots, boosting diversity, equity & inclusion on and off-camera and the revival of its partnership children’s literacy program Book It! The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Brand Innovators: How did the COVID-19 pandemic initially impact your business last year, and what pivots or innovations did you put in place to address the new customer experience? 

George Felix: At Pizza Hut, we recognize that at any time we play an important role in feeding families and providing safe, fast and reliable meals for people. But particularly in the pandemic, that became more important than ever. From the beginning, everything we were doing was about how we let people know we’re open, available, safe to get – however you want to get your pizza – and really just emphasize that Pizza Hut’s always on in terms of providing abundant meals at a great value.

As we went on, we like so many other businesses we had to pivot and figure out how to best meet the needs of our customers. We’re really proud of the work we did partnering with our tech and operations teams. We were the first national brand to roll out contactless curbside pickup for customers, as that became the preferred method for people getting their food. And obviously the health and safety of our team members was at the forefront of all the decisions we were making, so instituting a lot of different procedures — whether it was pre-shift temperature checks, counter shields in the restaurants, masks for all of our team members and safety seals on our boxes — those are the things that continue today and we’ll continue to ensure that our team members’ and customers’ safety is our top priority.

How have you adjusted your menu this past year to meet new customer trends and tastes?

Part of the success we saw last year was leaning into some of our iconic pizzas that people love from Pizza Hut — whether it was bringing back the Big Dipper, which was a fun, limited time offer that people loved — or some of our everyday iconic pizzas like the original stuffed crust or our original pan pizza, which celebrated its 40 year anniversary. These are pizzas that people know Pizza Hut for and love. For instance, bringing an original comfort food like pan pizzas back in a year like 2020 when everyone could use a little more comfort gave us an opportunity to do an unexpected partnership with Gravity Blanket, which is also known for providing comfort to so many people. We created the Original Pan Weighted Blanket, which sold out in hours and was the ultimate in comfort. It’s now selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars. And so finding new ways to bring back our iconic pizzas was a big part of last year. 

We also introduced the Triple Treat Box over the holidays, which proved to be a big hit with our customers with what was going on in the country at that time and families being home and wanting to eat together. That iconic three-course meal all wrapped up in one holiday festive box was very true to what Pizza Hut’s all about, which is providing family meals and doing those iconic customer packages that only we can do. 

The other side of the coin was really more about new innovations and what are some things we could do to meet customers’ current needs in terms of where taste profiles are headed. We had two product launches that we were proud of last year. First, we launched Beyond Pan Pizzas, we were the first national pizza player to launch plant-based pizzas nationally with our Beyond Italian Sausage through our partnership with Beyond. It was a great way to meet the changing needs of customers in terms of those customers looking to modify their diets and eat plant-based meats. It was great to have an offering for customers on that front. And second was our Detroit Style Pizza, which as I mentioned is already a huge hit for us.

Delivery app usage has exploded this past year. How are you adapting to those changes from both an internal and external standpoint?

We’re focused on really making it easier for people to order pizza and get it to them fast and safely. We’ve seen a huge uptick in our app usage and downloads just in terms of the amount of customers we’re bringing in through our digital channels. I think it signals that with COVID, the behavior change of consumers and the desire for easier ordering options is here to stay. So we know we need to continue to find new ways to make our experience easier with fewer clicks. 

What are some actions you've taken as a marketer to advance diversity, equality & inclusion at Pizza Hut this past year?

I think it starts at our parent company Yum and the commitment we’ve made across the entire company to DEI. Yum, through the Unlocking Opportunity initiative, has pledged $100 million over five years to DE&I efforts, which Pizza Hut is proud to be a part of. And especially for Pizza Hut, we’ve been on a journey over the last year to make sure that we’re better equipped and more in tune with all the spaces in DE&I. And that started with the appointment of Chequan Lewis as our first chief equity officer. He’s really spearheaded the strategy and honestly the teaching of our organization of how best we can be inclusive and equitable. And a lot of that has been creating space for us to have conversations and listen to diverse voices whether they’re within or outside of our organization so that we’re all talking about what’s happening in our world. And he’s been absolutely amazing in helping us think through that part.

From a marketing standpoint, we’re constantly looking behind and in front of the camera to be representative of the communities we serve and we’ve made great strides there. From a social impact standpoint, we’ve had a literacy program for quite awhile with Book It! and our partnership with First Book. Last year, I was really proud of the work we did with a couple initiatives. One being the Stories for All initiative, which is all about getting underrepresented minorities more prominence in children’s books. There’s just not enough representation in the books children are reading, so representing minority authors and characters in those books, and getting those books into the hands of children around the country is something I’ve been passionate about.

We’ve also been partnering with American University and their anti-racism institute to get more resources for teachers to facilitate these conversations with kids in their classrooms. It’s something we’ve heard from teachers as an unmet need right now, and so for us to be able to help provide those resources to teachers across the country is again something we’re proud of as a brand at Pizza Hut.

Book It! was probably my first major memory of engaging with Pizza Hut during my elementary school days. How did that initiative pivot to adapt to the mostly virtual classrooms children are still in?

We launched Camp Book It! last summer knowing the way things went virtually through the end of last school year. That was something that was geared toward parents to help their kids keep up with reading and head into the next year on the right track.  We’re really proud of all the work we’ve done, and as we move forward and bring back all the things that people love about PIzza Hut, we see Book It! playing a larger role in that.  

What consumer trends that emerged this past year do you think will stick even after the COVID-19 vaccine has been deployed at scale?

I think customers’ demand for ease and easy solutions and being the easy button is going to continue to be there — and maybe be even more pronounced than it was 12 months ago. So many people have changed their behaviors and accelerated their digital adoption across different demographics and age groups. I don’t see that going back. I think it'll be more critical than ever to provide a frictionless, easy experience for customers. And for us, we believe strongly in the power of distinctive and relevant brands. Being distinctive is more important than ever. 

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.

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