Papa John's to pump $40m into marketing efforts with Shaquille O'Neal in tow

Shaquille O'Neal to help Papa John regain consumer and investor love

Following the public downfall of Papa John himself, the pizza chain has spent the past year regaining its lost position, amid stern competition from Domino's and Pizza Hut. As it announces tangible gains in restaurant openings and quarterly profit, Papa John's is about to embark on a $40m marketing push, with NBA star Shaquille O'Neal as its new brand ambassador, according to reports from QSR magazine.

The pizza chain’s major problems began last year when it's founder, mascot, chief exec and chairman, John Schnatter, delivered a sustained series of PR misfires that placed his company in a difficult position.

After he hit headlines for publicly condemning NFL black athletes for ‘taking a knee,’ the company endured a public backlash that saw Schnatter step down as chief exec soon after. Following that, Papa John’s lost its lucrative deal with NFL as official sponsor - an account that was picked up by its main competitor Pizza Hut. Schnatter eventually stepped down all together as chairman after he had to publicly apologise for using a racial slur during a call with his agency of record.

With its public image in tatters, in August last year, Papa John brought Endeavour Global Marketing on board as strategic partner and creative agency, to guide it through what it called a “pivotal moment” in its over 30-year history. During this time, all Schnatter-featured marketing materials were ditched.

Now a year on from this pivotal point, the pizza chain is placing a considerable portion of the $100m investment it received from Starboard in February into marketing - a push that it hopes will regain love for the brand.

Of the $100m investment, Papa John’s intends to spend $40m on marketing to enhance its turnaround priorities, with roughly half of it being spend over the next four months to support a campaign featuring O'Neal - its fresh brand ambassador. Given Schnatter’s many exits and PR flareups, Papa John will leveraging the likeable four-time NBA champion O’Neal to rehabilitate its image and to amplify its differentiated market position.

No stranger to the franchise sector, O’Neal already owns a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts franchise in Atlanta, a fried chicken restaurant in Las Vegas and a fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles. President and chief exec Steve Ritchie said O’Neal was therefore brought on as he “understands how to build lasting connections with consumers and energise employees.”

O’Neal is reported to have signed a contract that pays him $4.125m over three years to rep the brand, which will be paid in three installments. He has also received 87,136 shares for stock that currently amount to over $4.4m.

The NBA star is set to appear on marketing materials from early September, alongside a national advertising campaign which will push O’Neal as the face of Papa John. The the marketing investment will also go towards testing a number of value and menu constructs, to figure out more accessible price points.

Papa John has hired Subways’s former senior vice-president of marketing, Karlin Linhardt in March to drive this traffic-driving initiative as chief marketing officer.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.