Pizza Hut’s rebranding is stale

It was with a sinking heart that I noticed something odd while flicking through a friend’s holiday snaps online. As part of his road trip around the US, he had stopped outside a restaurant called The Hut. Clutching a pizza in his slightly sunburnt hand, it dawned on me that The Hut was yet another marketing initiative from the folks at Pizza Hut.

The Hut is apparently being tested by owner Yum! Brands as the name for some American store locations; a range of new pizza boxes across the country now also bear The Hut moniker rather than Pizza Hut.

It seems that Yum! Brands just can’t leave the Pizza Hut brand alone. One of my least favourite marketing exercises of last year was Pizza Hut’s “rebranding” of its restaurants to Pasta Hut in the UK.

Announced first as a full-scale renaming to move with the health-conscious times, it soon emerged that this was merely a “trial” exercise to promote the brand’s range of pasta dishes.

Consumers were asked to “vote” for whether to stick with the old name or change to the new one. In January this year, Pizza Hut announced that 81% of British consumers polled wanted to go back to the old name, but the new pasta dishes would remain on the menus. This was not much of a surprise to those of us who had seen the brand do exactly the same thing in the US several months earlier.

I hated the Pasta Hut campaign for several reasons. The most important reason is that it broke one of the foremost rules to obey in any marketing campaign: don’t try to fool the consumer. This doesn’t mean you can’t surprise them with a teaser campaign or viral, but don’t tell them something is genuine brand innovation when it’s just a PR stunt.

If you want to broaden your product range to include pasta and appeal to more people, it’s fair enough. It’s even a nice touch to ask people if they think the brand should still be called Pizza Hut if the menu substantially changes.

But you shouldn’t announce this as a strategic name change “to mark the dawn of a new era” if it’s really likely only to be a temporary initiative. Anyone with access to Google in the UK was able to see that Yum! Brands had run an identical “rebranding” stunt in the US several months earlier and the names of the stores were already being changed back to Pizza Hut.

This kind of activity will backfire later on, when you want people to take what the brand does seriously. They will see you offering spin over substance. Consumers are very keen to dismiss marketing activities as shallow and meaningless and this only confirms that view.

Yum! Brands is doing some genuinely interesting things with Pizza Hut’s food, with an announcement earlier this year in the States that it would do away with artificial ingredients and use a box made of 40% recycled material.

After it introduced “The Natural” pizza last year, it has now rolled the ingredients across the whole range.

This is the type of innovation that matters to people. Not that I had much idea that there would be “high-fructose corn syrup” in tomato sauce in the first place or that sausages might contain artificial colourants (who thinks of these additions?). But I’m pleased to hear that next time I’m eating a big old American pizza, I won’t be consuming any nasties.

So it’s a mystery to me why just a year after the whole Pasta Hut rebrand, the company would now start a whole new renaming mission by introducing The Hut. Having spent 12 months being either Pizza Hut or Pasta Hut, the business now seems to be testing out a third name.

The chief marketing officer of Pizza Hut in the US claims that rather than replacing Pizza Hut, The Hut is just another brand in the firm’s amoury, calling it a “vocabulary word” that shortens the brand name for an impatient text-savvy youth market.

The company is also installing an in-store digital video network called “Hut TV” in some branches. Twenty-four stores already have the service and it will be rolled out throughout 2010. It aims to entertain customers to cut down on perceived waiting times and promote any specials.

I appreciate Yum! Brands is trying to evolve its brand for an age where obesity is always in the headlines and there are so many options for families when dining out. It has correctly identified that it cannot rest on its laurels. But I don’t think messing around with the name is the solution.

Pizza Hut is a perfectly good name. It is what the moniker stands for that matters. People have no trouble appreciating that the Carphone Warehouse does not only sell phones for cars. We all understand that you can buy an Apple Mac at the shop called PC World. Equally, we can all probably grasp that Pizza Hut can be more than just a dough shack.

If Pizza Hut really wants to be a family restaurant for 2009, it needs to stop worrying about its name and start concentrating on marketing the things that matter. Like really pushing its natural ingredients so parents can feel great taking their kids somewhere they can trust at relatively low prices.

And it might be worth the brand’s marketers picking up on the comments made by my friend posing in those photos with his pizza. When I asked him if he felt The Hut had been a better experience than Pizza Hut, he said: “I don’t care what it’s called. I just wanted the food to taste really good and the toilets to be clean.”


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