Pizza Hut Wants You to Love Its 'Imperfections'
Can the nation’s No. 1 pizza chain convince the largest generation of consumers that it’s not, well, just another pizza chain?
For the past few years, Pizza Hut has more or less jumped on the “let’s come up with something so outrageous that it’s guaranteed to go viral” bandwagon, a kind of nauseating fast-food arms race that has brought us everything from the KFC Double Down and the Carl’s Jr. Footlong Cheeseburger to Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos and, yes, Pizza Hut’s own gut-busting P’zones and Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza. Its new approach, however, is more rough-hewn, more flawed—and very much intentionally so.
Now, it’s not like Pizza Hut has managed to exhaust the fast-food-as-circus-sideshow-freak strategy: It has yet to bring to the States its crusts stuffed with cheeseburgers or chicken nuggets, for example, which it sells overseas. But as Ad Age reports, the chain is taking a different tack in its efforts to lure—who else?—Millennials.
By all accounts, the coveted demographic hungers for “authentic” experiences (that it can then tweet about or post pictures of on Instagram). To that end, Pizza Hut launched “hand-tossed” pizzas earlier this year, following up with flavors that appear market-tested to appeal to Millennials’ purported taste for fresher-tasting and out-of-the-ordinary flavors, like a five-cheese or a chicken-bacon-tomato pie.
Nowhere, it seems, does Pizza Hut deploy the term “artisanal” to describe its new pies, although that's clearly the kind of golden branding glow it's trying to achieve. Think hipster pizzeria in Brooklyn but for the suburban masses. Maybe its marketing team sensed that the fast-food industry has already latched on to the word like a tapeworm and sucked the meaning out of it, damning it to that semantic purgatory that exits between so many air quotes. I mean, we’ve already seen “artisan” bagels from Dunkin’ Donuts, “artisan” buns from McDonald’s, and—oops!—“artisan” pizzas from Domino’s. But Pizza Hut wants you to think that these pies, with their much-publicized “imperfections”—which apparently required the chain to embark on its most “intense” training program in two decades, according to USA Today, presumably to undo years of squelching any kitchen creativity by its underpaid staff in favor of rigid quality-control standards—are more homemade or homespun or wholesome, or whatever.
Despite the airier texture, however, the crusts have a slightly higher calorie count than Pizza Hut's traditional crusts, owing to a slather of garlic-butter sauce.
If it seems like a kind of oxymoron that a nationwide pizza chain would turn to a pizzas-as-snowflakes strategy—each imperfect pie is “truly one of a kind,” Chief Marketing Officer Carrie Walsh told USA Today—then that just reflects the conundrum that established fast-food brands face as they chase the tails of fast-casual restaurant chains like Chipotle and Panera that have become beloved pit stops for Millennials.
Pizza Hut’s sister brand Taco Bell (both are owned by Yum! Brands, as is KFC) tried to go head-to-head with Chipotle by launching a fresher, higher-end “Cantina Bell” menu in 2012, but that failed to ignite any buzz comparable to its Doritos Locos Tacos. Chipotle founder Steve Ells' potshot at Taco Bell’s move, reported by The Motley Fool, pretty much sums up the deceit at the core of the effort by traditional fast-food chains to appear fresher and more authentic: “Our customers don’t want ‘grilled chicken’ from restaurants that don’t have knives, grills, or a cutting board.”
Well, I guess we have to admit that at least there are “hands” in the kitchen making Pizza Hut’s “hand-tossed” pizzas.