Harris Poll: Papa John’s Topples Pizza Hut as 2017 Pizza Brand of the Year

As millennials exert greater influence over brand health, consumers in general are rallying around brands that share their values, especially in politics.




 

A new study by The Harris Poll shows Papa John has usurped Pizza Hut’s long-held spot as the top pizza chain brand in the U.S.

The Harris Poll’s EquiTrend Study surveys the strongest brands in categories ranging from restaurants and retail to technology, travel and nonprofits, based on consumer response. Designed to measure brand health over time, The Harris Poll looks at three factors—familiarity, quality and purchase consideration—to rate brand equity. For this year’s study, more than 100,000 consumers evaluated more than 4,000 brands across 450-plus categories.

Under founder John Schnatter, the Papa John’s brand enjoys greater loyalty from right-leaning consumers.

Papa John’s emerged as the Pizza Chain Brand of the Year, unseating Pizza Hut for the first time since 2012. Pizza Hut slipped to No. 3, with fast-casual phenomenon Blaze Pizza moving into the No. 2 position and Marco’s Pizza taking No. 4. Cici’s Pizza, Domino’s and Little Caesar’s were included in the study but ranked below the category average.

“This year, the tables reversed for Papa John’s and Pizza Hut,” Joan Sinopoli, vice president of brand solutions at The Harris Poll, told PMQ. After being named Brand of the Year in 2012, the chain “experienced a significant decline the following year in quality perceptions,” she added. “Since then, Papa John’s quality and several other measures in EquiTrend have been slowly, steadily increasing. Finally, in 2017, Papa John’s quality perceptions increased significantly as Pizza Hut’s declined by the same margin.”

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what drove the increase, but we can say Papa John’s performed better than Pizza Hut in emotional connection and fit as well. It may be that the ties to beloved Peyton Manning—a relationship that was inked in 2012—and the NFL helped the brand get back in the game.”

Both pizza megachains in the past two years have responded to public demand for “cleaner” ingredients. Papa John’s ditched 14 undesirable ingredients—including artificial colors, flavor enhancers, sweeteners, thickeners and preservatives—and now sources only vegetarian-fed poultry raised without human or animal antibiotics. Pizza Hut removed artificial flavors and colors from its pizza line in 2015 and got rid of BHA and BHT additives last year.

More recently, Papa John’s has been testing four organic vegetables—tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and mushrooms—at 35 stores in Lexington, Kentucky.

“Cleaner” food resonates with millennials, who are beginning to exert considerable influence on brand behavior. “More engaged with brands than ever before, millennials—the largest generational cohort—are reshaping the U.S. brand landscape,” Sinopoli said in a statement. “With prime earning years still ahead of them and a strong sense of values, they are dictating culture through the brands they buy. Millennials are using their new spending power to explore the world around them, purchase and feather their new nests, and take steps to financially protect their growing families.”

But millennials aren’t the only demographic group that makes buying decisions based on values. Americans of all ages are rallying around brands that reflect their political views, which may in part explain Papa John’s rise to the top in this year’s survey. While liberal-leaning consumers have boosted brands like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Shops and Starbucks (both of which supported Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders), more conservative customers have awarded higher brand equity to Papa John’s and Chick-fil-A. In 2012, Papa John’s founder John Schnatter was openly critical of the Affordable Care Act, claiming it would drive up prices in his stores and force him to reduce workers’ hours.

Consumers’ divided loyalties reflect larger divisions within society, Sinopoli noted in a Harris Poll press release. “Brand preferences demonstrated by values, rather than generational differences, are more striking and perhaps carry a more serious message about how we live today,” she said. “How can we expect to close the country’s divide if we aren’t meeting each other over a cup of coffee or discussing news and entertainment from the same sources?

 

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