Yum! Brands should do the patriotic thing and lend Pizza Hut’s menu development team to the Big Three auto companies. The wheezing giants desperately need innovation to make their products competitive again. Pizza Hut, as Sunday’s football broadcasts revealed, has nailed that ability to meet mainstream America’s preferences, before the public even senses the desire. The decades-old concept has transformed itself from a commodity seller into a consumer products business that just happens to use bargain-priced food as its means of satisfying a need.
The most recent bit of evidence is the pie that was advertised here in New York during the Jets’ meltdown Sunday against the Dolphins. A commercial showed a pleasant, brick-walled little pizza-and-pasta-type eatery, like you’d find in the artsy section of any city. The proprietress of Elizabeth’s, as I think the place was named, is offering samples of her newest item, a pizza made with all-natural ingredients. Customers rave about it.
Then Elizabeth reveals she didn’t make the pie. The camera cuts to a Pizza Hut delivery guy, carrying a stack of the chain’s new pizza, The Natural.
Okay, maybe the spot was a bit hokey, and a complete rip-off of the old Folgers Coffee commercial (persons of a younger vintage could probably find it on YouTube, mixed in with videos of jousts, barbershop quartets and other cultural phenomenon of that pre-historic time). But it got across the message that this was a pizza made with a whole-wheat crust, additive-free sauce and cheese, and “all-natural” pepperoni and sausage (i.e., both are free of nitrates, nitrites or other nasty-sounding preservatives). The message stressed that the sauce was made from vine-ripened tomatoes without any added sugar. It’s a convincing bid for validity.
Clearly, this is not your Folgers drinker’s pizza.
There’s nothing about Pizza Hut being the first mega-sized restaurant chain to offer an all-natural product. After all, who cares about that sort of huckster-ism.
And it wasn’t about price, though the spot did indicate the pies sell for $11.99 (a “rustic” version, with whole tomato slices) and $9.99 (the basic pie).
No, the hook is clearly the all-natural aspect. As that sensibility has gone mainstream, convincing consumers that “natural” is better, many would-be converts were likely frustrated by the lack of access to reasonably priced examples. They likely wouldn’t have found an all-natural pizza in the corner joint. And places that carried such a pie may have come across as too nuts-and-berry.
I’m betting Pizza Hut has found a true sweet spot. Of course, that’s easy to say when you consider all the year-end predictions that health and wholesomeness will have a profound impact on restaurant menus in 2009. The National Restaurant Association, for instance, cited “nutrition/health” as Number 11 on its list of hot trends for the new year.
The Natural, which has been in test for eons, follows the rollout earlier in the year of the Tuscani line of takeout and delivery pastas, in my estimation the restaurant industry’s best new product of 2009. In the latest estimate by Yum executives, the $12.99 trays of pasta, each of which feeds four, have generated in excess of $100 million in sales since their introduction in April.
That adeptness at reading the market may be what the auto industry needs to come up with the next Mustang, SUV or small pickup.