How Patrick Doyle faced the reality of not being the best – and took steps to put Domino’s back on top

They were definitely dropping some “New Coke” references in those first few months. But Patrick Doyle and his leadership team would just smile at each other. No matter what the media pundits said, they knew they were right.

When Domino’s Pizza made the decision to scrap its old pizza recipe in 2009, Doyle’s team had amassed a year and a half’s worth of data that said customers viewed Domino’s as a convenience brand first. They ordered Domino’s for a pizza in 30 minutes, not for quality food. Customers perceived the pizza itself as a brand weakness.

It’s something the leadership at Domino’s never really took to heart. Like its customers, Domino’s leaders had always viewed their specialty as convenience. Any complaints about the food would be offset many times over by the customers who kept coming back for the efficient service. It’s a philosophy that made Domino’s the worldwide gold standard in pizza delivery, with yearly sales in the billions.

That all changed in early 2008.

“We had launched a new ad campaign called ‘You Got 30,’ which kind of took us back to our roots,” says Doyle, the president and CEO of Domino’s Pizza Inc. “While we weren’t guaranteeing anyone a 30-minute delivery, we were reminding them that most of the time, they’ll get their pizza in 30 minutes. The campaign emphasized how Domino’s saves you time and what you could do with that 30 minutes.”

The campaign fell on deaf ears. Consumers had heard it all before.

“They simply did not care,” Doyle says. “The consumers who already used us because they appreciated the convenience already knew what we were telling them. Those that didn’t, who said the convenience factor was great but we needed better food, it didn’t change their minds about anything. So it was right then, in March 2008, about two months after we launched that ad campaign, that we decided we needed to go back to the drawing board with our pizza.”

Take a bold step

To this day, it’s something of a parlor game at Domino’s Ann Arbor headquarters: Who else in the world of business has admitted an inferior flagship product, scrapped it and rebuilt it from scratch?

“We still can’t come up with one,” Doyle says. “The closest example I ever heard was an ad in the late ’60s from Volkswagen, which had a picture of one of their cars, and under the picture it said ‘lemon.’ They were dealing with some quality perceptions head-on, but it was a single print ad from 45 years ago. We have wracked our brains, and our ad agency’s brains, to come up with a comparable example where a company has come out and said, ‘Our product wasn’t good.’ We haven’t yet.”

To make the product better to the eyes and mouths of customers, Doyle and his team had to go directly to the source. The first step was to listen to the people who had an ax to grind with Domino’s. Throughout 2008 and into 2009, Doyle and the rest of the company’s leadership stayed quiet, listened and took their verbal lumps as consumers launched repeated salvos, comparing the crust to cardboard and the sauce to ketchup, among other things.

“We did every possible kind of research,” Doyle says. “We were doing qualitative research like focus groups, where you’re getting people into a room and having them help you get a sense for where the opportunities were. Those were the comments you ended up seeing in the commercials themselves. But then, we also went out and tested every possible ingredient change, every combination of new sauces, crusts and cheeses, until we thought we had it optimized. Then, we took the new pizza ideas to our most loyal customers to see if they’d appreciate the change. We took it to people who weren’t doing business with us. We went to kids, we went to every possible demographic group and kept testing it.”

The rounds of data gathering and testing put Domino’s on the path to wholesale product change. The recipes for the crust and sauce were completely remade, and new cheese would be used.

Doyle and his leadership team had their new product ready for rollout by the fall of 2009. Then came the next step: explaining themselves, first to the company’s 4,900 U.S.-based franchisees, then to public at large.