Pizza Hut ready for NFL kickoff after Papa John's fumble

Pizza Hut is ready to capitalize on its partnership with the NFL as it kicks off its 2018 season on Thursday night, less than one year after rival Papa John’s, the NFL’s former pizza partner, accused the league of hurting its sales.

The Texas-based pizza chain this week launched a new “Game Plan” program, granting customers who sign up for the digital platform access to sales promotions and weekly giveaways. Pizza Hut locations will use special-edition, NFL-themed pizza boxes equipped with augmented reality technology, while Pittsburgh Steelers stars Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster star in Pizza Hut’s first national NFL television advertising campaign.

The initiatives are part of Pizza Hut’s plan to use the NFL partnership to lure customers away from rivals like Domino’s, which has achieved rapid growth in recent years by embracing digital sales efforts. While the NFL partnership gives Pizza Hut access to a massive fan base, it also links the pizza chain to a league contending with polarizing national anthem protests and a public war of words with President Donald Trump. From the start, company officials are planning to avoid wading into politics. 

“From the beginning of this partnership, we’ve been focused on the fans and enhancing the fan experience, bringing people together over football and pizza,” Marianne Radley, Pizza Hut’s chief brand officer, told FOX Business.

Pizza Hut became the NFL’s official pizza sponsor last February, just days after the league and Papa John’s mutually parted ways after a lengthy partnership. The relationship between the two sides soured last November after former Papa John’s CEO and company founder John Schnatter said the NFL’s declining television viewership and handling of player national anthem protests had hurt sales.

The NFL partnership is just one part of Pizza Hut’s effort to hold off Domino’s, which has posted 29 straight quarters of comparable sales growth.

Pizza Hut has struggled to sustain growth, with same-store sales plunging 2 percent in 2016 and remaining flat in 2017. The chain is in the process of rolling out $130 million in investments for better technology in its restaurants and digital operations through the end of 2018.

Pizza Hut’s new marketing campaign will help put the company “more firmly on the radar” for customers amid tough competition in the industry, according to Neil Saunders, a retail analyst for GlobalData. But the chain still has to address underlying weaknesses in its business.

“One of the key issues for Pizza Hut is that it lags in terms of the delivery market. Its store locations and delivery areas are not as favorable as either Papa John's or Domino's, but of which have good exposure to college towns and a student audience,” Saunders said. “Another issue is that Pizza Hut is not seen as a go-to destination among younger consumer groups. It is still seen as more of a family restaurant and faces a lot of competition in that part of the market.”

Improved delivery service is one of the key elements of Pizza Hut’s NFL campaign. The chain is offering a large two-topping pizza for $7.99 throughout the NFL season, while the AR-equipped pizza boxes will allow customers to play a virtual game of “cornhole,” tossing digital beanbags.

With Papa John’s reeling from an ongoing battle between Schnatter and the company’s board of directors, Pizza Hut is positioned to take back some of the market share lost in recent years.

“It is no secret that we see a powerful pickup in our business during football season and we expect to see even more of that this year through the partnership with the NFL,” Radley said.