Papa John’s, the pizza chain flailing its figurative arms Kermit-style as it runs from its publicity dumpster fire, can see all the vitriol spewing in its direction. It can hear all the characterizations customers and former customers are invoking: Racism! Bigotry! Dog whistle!
To that, Papa John’s has one message to America: Thank you. Thank you for calling us bigots. Thank you for saying we engage in dog-whistle racism. Thank you for boycotting us. Thank you for writing that you’ll never spend another dime on our business again. No, seriously, thank you, merci, danke, obrigado, 谢谢, ありがと, and muchas gracias. We want to thank you so much, we’re going to screenshot some of the angrier messages lobbed at us on social media (but not the angriest, expletive-filled ones) just to show, yup, we hear you loud and clear:
Is there a stronger example of over-correcting in the history of brand rehabilitation? Any sensible observer would acknowledge that Papa John’s likely isn’t a monolith of racism—Forbes called its offices a “toxic culture,” sure, but the chain is comprised of thousands of local franchises and 120,000-plus employees, and it’s a shame that one ding dong (who happens to be the company founder and whose face graces the pizza box) threw himself into the cultural political fray, offhandedly used the N-word in a conference call, and claimed extortion against his corporate board, and basically single handedly caused his franchisees to suffer financially.
I’m no branding expert, but the danger I see is the chain baking in public perception that Papa John’s is the “racist pizza chain.” It feels a bit self-sabotaging in the name of candor. It worked for Domino’s and its “we’re sorry for sucking” campaign, but a reason for that success was Domino’s offered a tangibly improved product. The question, then, is how will Papa John’s execute its “we’re sorry our founder used the N-word” turnaround? (For their part, Papa John’s new CEO Steve Ritchie wrote that efforts to diversify their culture are afoot.) Can the company do so without a complete rebranding? Will it continue calling itself Papa John’s or is the name too toxic?
Perhaps like Domino’s, Papa John’s can start by offering a better pizza.