The Press,  December 2008
This is a story of gluttony, lust, religion, greed and fast food. It’s not an episode of Shortland Street, but the marketing spectacle that is Hell Pizza.

Having built a brand on the basis of outraging people outside their target demographic, they have made the fatal step of showing similar contempt for the people pay their bills – their customers.

Starting with a single Wellington store in 1996, Hell Pizza has grown to over 60 outlets nationwide. Stores have also been opened in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Hell Pizza’s success was built by creating strong brand awareness through controversial promotional activity, backed with innovative pizzas and good service.

Priding themselves on their edgy brand, Hell Pizza have set new standards for cynical marketing. Here’s a quick reminder of some of Hell Pizza’s promotional initiatives:

  • A billboard proclaiming “Hell. Too good for some evil bastards.” Next to photos of George Bush and Adolf Hitler.
  • A promotional flyer offering a free Thai massage with a pizza purchase.
  • A direct mail campaign using 170,000 condoms to promote their Lust pizza.

These controversial tactics have produced huge amounts of publicity and helped Hell Pizza cost-effectively raise awareness. It was the kind exposure Pizza Hutt or Dominos would have to spend enormous amounts on, to match traditional advertising.

Recently Hell Pizza took their approach to marketing one step further, with an online promotion celebrating Halloween that was labelled ‘grotesque’. Hell Pizza’s advertising agency Colenso built a website showing the desiccated bodies of Sir Edmund Hillary, Heath Ledger and the Queen Mother dancing on a grave.

“I don’t think it’s very funny,” Sir Ed’s son Peter Hillary was quoted as saying in The Press.

“I think it’s a bit disturbing . . . a little grotesque,” he said, echoing the sentiments of many New Zealanders who were uncomfortable at Hell Pizza seeking commercial gain by ridiculing a recently deceased national hero.

Although Hell Pizza and Colenso may have gone too far this time, they still generated enormous publicity for the brand.  It is a formula that has worked in the past – poking fun at subjects outside the target demographic and enjoying the outrage that has followed.

The people being offended were never likely to buy Hell Pizza so it didn’t matter, and the rest were amused by the bunfight and saw Hell Pizza as unique and edgy. They saw a pizza chain that might give them something a bit different than the ‘boring’ mainstream providers.

Taking aim at a figure like Sir Ed was fraught, but not necessarily fatal. The killer blow for Hell Pizza may be that they seem to have lost respect for their customers. And ironically it is probably the funniest stuff they have ever come up with.

Last month a number of media outlets reported instructions sent out to Hell Pizza stores by the New Zealand master franchisers, TPF Group. In a scenario straight out of The Office, the company sent franchises a “Portion Standardisation Roll-out Guide.”

It included a memo called “Improving Gross Profit Through Pizza Topping Standardisation,” which included new pizza recipes. What these weasel words meant was reducing ingredients by 10-25%.

Strangely enough this new innovation was not going to get the normal Hell Pizza promotional effort. “There is no marketing material associated with this launch as the changes will not be communicated with or noticed by customers. Customers will not notice the difference when these changes are made but your P&L will,” the memo said.

The company that boasts on their website that they, “craft tasty pizzas, (and) live our business with  . . . our customers,” was quite prepared to shaft them.

While Hell Pizza could survive and even thrive by insulting people outside its demographic, showing the same disdain for customers is proving disastrous. Although the changes have since been rescinded, the contempt for customers is evident.

This was again shown in yet another leaked memo last month from Hell Pizza HQ. Announcing a price rise to pizzas, levied after some customer research, said “the great news is customers did not have an issue with our pizza price increases. In the current economic climate, they expected our prices to go up, and thought the amount we were increasing them was reasonable, and would not cause them to visit less often.”

Now there is a Tui billboard if ever I saw one. Hell Pizza were on one hand preparing to reduce the value of their pizza by reducing toppings, while on the other hand increasing the price!

It was reported by the Sunday Star Times in mid-November that Hell Pizza’s owner TPF Group was trying to get rid of the troublesome chain, but hadn’t yet found a buyer.

Although the credit crunch will be affecting their ability to find a buyer with cash, weakening sales won’t be helping the story. According to the same article, October 2008 sales were 14% down on the year before with some stores being hit with 25% drops.

This at the same time arch-rival Dominos sales are increasing and the chain has plans to increase their stores from 67 to over 80, according to a recent report in The Press.

Hell Pizza has cleverly, if distastefully, built a strong brand in New Zealand. But in failing to treat their customers with respect, their marketing may have become fatally flawed.

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