04.16.14 5:00 PM ET
Domino’s Fried-Chicken Pizza Means We’ve Hit Peak Food Trolling
Fast-foodies rejoice! Domino’s pizza, the purveyor of cheap bread-based fuel, has just launched an exciting new product: Specialty Chicken.
This new entrant to the menus consists of breaded chicken nuggets topped with cheese and sauces, including Crispy Bacon & Tomato and Spicy Jalapeno-Pineapple. “Our new Specialty Chicken is one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had,” said Russell Weiner, Domino’s Pizza chief marketing officer, said in a press release.
Not to be outdone, KFC announced Wednesday its infamous Double Down sandwich with fried chicken for buns will return to the menu next week.
This represents the latest effort of America’s struggling fast-food industry—make that the quick-service restaurant complex—to change the narrative by invoking the mantra of innovation. And it is doing so out of necessity. Yes, the global market for junk food is burgeoning. But the core U.S. market has become something of a problem for established brands. Many chains have long since saturated their home market — in most densely populated areas, there’s at least one McDonald’s per square mile. A significant current in the food zeitgeist is running against low-quality, industrial-produced, calorie-heavy food products. New competitors are constantly springing up. And customers at the lower end of the income skill are struggling to make ends meet, which pinches their discretionary spending.
This conundrum has inspired a range of reactions. Some have invested in innovations in chemistry and food science, like Burger King’s 10-year quest to develop new French fry technology that retains the oil-fueled crunch while keeping out the oil-fueled calories. Others have focused on beefing up new product categories to keep pace with the changing times. In an era of rising obsession with qualify coffee, for example, McDonald’s has spent a ton of advertising trying to get people to think of the Golden Arches as an alternative to the green haven of Starbuck’s.
But others have seemed to go for that most American of reactions—a publicity stunt, a self-consciously gonzo move of throwing something out there and seeing if it sticks.
Now, Fortune 500 companies have elaborate product-planning and strategy processes. They think long and hard about tinkering with the formula. To make an impact on a chain with thousands of outlets, after all, new introductions must be done at scale. And that costs money. So brand managers don’t simply wake up one day, stroll out to the mound, and starting throwing curveballs at their legions of customers.
And yet that seems to be happening with some frequency. Forget about modest changes or tweaks, or improving the quality of ingredients, or making them more healthful. Instead, throw out crackpot ideas that might simultaneously troll critics and delight hard-core users, and get a ton of free publicity—and that just might catch fire.
The best example of this, perhaps, was Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos taco. The idea of using an incredibly salty, orange-hued shell as a delivery vehicle for salty stuffings seemed a little daft. But the eating public went nuts for it, leading Taco Bell to claim that it created 15,000 jobs. Taco Bell, which embraces is offbeat brand, has followed up with variations on the theme—ranch-flavored and very spicy versions of the Doritos-based tacos, and the breakfast waffle taco.
It’s pretty rare for big companies to dub their product offerings as “crazy,” or “loco.” But in today’s media world, self-consciously branding your latest business idea as nuts can pay dividends. It gets people talking and sharing. It garners a lot of what people in the public relations world refer to as “earned media” —i.e. press, blog, and social media coverage. To a degree, whether they catch on or not and assume their place in the pantheon of core fast-food products is almost irrelevant.
Which brings us back to Domino’s. Over the years, Domino’s has attempted to expand its offering in a rational way. Its menu now offers stuffed-cheesy breads, pastas, and artisanal pizzas. But those aren’t really game-changers, they’re simply variations on the theme of bread, cheese, and dough. There was nothing crazy about these brand extensions.
But this chicken idea is something else entirely. Forget about the crust, dispense with the carb-heavy base. Instead, replace it with a lean protein base. Top it with sweet and savory goop, and proclaim a new era in the world of pizza. Let it all hang out and let the chips fall where they may. The ad campaign surrounding the launch bears the tagline “Failure is an Option.”
Will it work? Who knows? But whether these gussied-up chicken nuggets helps boost sales, foot traffic or market share is almost beside the point. This is about showing you’re not afraid to bring it. If it rings the registers, great. If not, you can couch your effort in Churchillian terms. As Russell Weiner, Dominos’ chief marketing officer, put it: “Not every risk we have taken has turned out to be successful, but as a brand we have learned that sometimes you have to fail in order to be great.”