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The social media success of Crust Pizza

When Crust planned to go up against the big boys of the pizza industry we knew we were taking on a juggernaut. With franchise models and brand campaigns developed over decades, they were focused on grabbing the biggest market share through discount coupons and meal deals.

We also knew that they were pushing forward an outdated idea of what people wanted on the top of their pizzas. This gave Crust a perfect opening to create something fresh and different, and to communicate it to people in a different way. Not only did we want to make sure we were delivering the best pizza possible and turn the old idea of it on its head, we wanted to harness the new media territory—the world of online and social networking.

Once dominated by hamburgers and fries, the fast food industry in Australia has undergone a health kick in the past 10 years. We saw this in 2001 when we opened our first Crust store in Annandale, Sydney, when we predicted that healthy gourmet food was going to be a hit.

We also knew about the theatre of food, with all the fresh ingredients laid out before you and open plan design allowing you to see the pizza creators at work. This shift towards healthy eating has been helped along by the growing awareness about the nutritional content of takeaway food—people care about what they are picking up on the way home from work. Most consumers are now making a conscious effort to eat a balanced diet. We made the most of the opportunity to change the idea of pizza as a fatty, chunky food.

Guilt free pizza?

Being the first pizza company to be awarded the Heart Foundation Tick on six of our pizzas did put us on the map. It helped really state what we’re about: a premium offering, beyond just what our presence through stores could achieve. We wanted to tell people that you don’t need to eat takeaway junk when there’s the option for a super-high-end pizza available that is healthy, low fat or even gluten free.

But don’t get me wrong, securing a Heart Foundation Tick was hard and exhausting. We worked closely with their nutritionists to meet their exacting standards. Our chefs worked to make sure that our standards of taste and quality were never compromised. But the results were worth it. The exposure that the Heart Foundation Tick gave Crust was incredible; delivering us to a wider market we knew was just hankering for a guilt-free pizza.

Securing the hard-won Heart Foundation Tick was also indicative of the way that Crust likes to promote itself as a brand. We have nowhere near the advertising spend of the juggernaut of heritage pizza brands. We have to do more with less. We have to be creative. But at the same time, we are diligent and careful with the identity of who Crust is, because there are ample opportunities for us to compromise on our message.

We took our first steps online in 2002 with our brochure-based website, and even then we already had a sense that the online frontier would be the making of us. At Crust we’ve never had a grand plan of being a national company with a presence in every state; we preferred the idea of being conservative about our growth.

We wanted to harness the slower burn of word-of-mouth as a powerful way to promote our story, as this retains our brand integrity. Without burning big money and keeping our brand values intact, starting conversations online about who we are and what do seemed to be a natural choice.

Nobody denies that word-of-mouth marketing is powerful, and the tools of social media can make it simple. Today, anyone can start up a Facebook page or start Tweeting. But the very simplicity of social media can be many brands’ undoing.

Community first

For a start you need a community to start talking to. It isn’t acceptable to simply post up a company Facebook page and wait for the community to find you. Our research into establishing our page showed that we needed to continually ‘feed’ it—our fans were looking for stories about what Crust was up to, they wanted to travel along the journey with us.

We quickly recognised that those who loved our food had very clear opinions about it, and they wanted to know how the company was developing new menu items. Purely put, our customers want to contribute. Crust is powered by the passion of those who order our pizza, and it was a pleasure to develop a forum where so many could contribute.

Through our Facebook portal we can provide direct feedback to concerns, we answer queries and let our community know about new stores opening and what’s on the latest menu. It’s a two-way conversation, and that takes investment.

Answering questions and being available to provide feedback almost instantaneously can be a full-time job in itself. When we went into this we weren’t entirely aware what an impact it would have on our day-to-day operations, but with more than 7,500 ‘fans’ on Facebook and a constant stream of enquiry and conversation, this takes a big chunk of our marketing time.

But we know that this is a valuable investment. To be able to quickly answer a customer’s query and to sort out their concern is worth a damn sight more than taking out a full-page ad in a glossy magazine. The power of positive word-of-mouth can be harnessed, as that satisfied customer goes on to tell their friends.

Investing in social networking

The cost of our social networking efforts comes out of our marketing budget, because this is its natural home. And we link our social network customers with our online ordering system, loyalty system and in-store point of sale systems. This way we are keeping our customer’s experience of our brand consistent, regardless of how or where they heard of us.

Marketing through online can have its downsides, however. Customers receive information through increasingly fragmented channels—everything from television, to internet TV, newsletters, and Twitter right across to mail in their letterboxes. By focusing our communication only online we do run the risk of only reaching a certain type of person. But by accurately identifying who our customer is, and truly understanding their demographics, we’ve worked out that the person who is spending more time online and receiving their news and entertainment offers through the internet is more likely going to order our product. So it makes sense for us to keep talking in this sphere.

Twitter is a big medium for us as well. The next step on from Facebook, Twitter allows us to interact with people who might be talking about us and for them to engage with us should they need to. As the numbers of people talking about us on Twitter increased, we decided it was time to reward them. Free Pizza Friday was born as a creative idea to give people the chance to win five pizzas on the last day of the working week.

By encouraging people to simply tweet the words “I’m entering #FreePizzaFriday” on Twitter, we could instantly get a picture of the number of people who had engaged with the Crust brand and whether they were advocates of our brand. Free Pizza Friday was only meant to be a temporary promotion. It was supposed to run for a few weeks. But we decided to extend it indefinitely because it has gone from strength to strength, with a following all of its own. We now have nearly 7,000 followers on Twitter and Friday brings with it an air of expectation. The keenest are quick to tell us that they are going into the draw again week after week.

Two-way conversations

Now we’re looking at new ways of engaging with our Twitter audience, and continuing to converse two-way with them, but we never forget that their loyalty to us is fragile. One missed step and we lose all of the hard-won respect we’ve gathered over the last few years. As our community grows, so does our reputation, and this makes it higher place to fall from. For all the power that word-of-mouth delivers, we are aware that it can just as quickly turn on our brand.

There are inherent risks in relying upon two-way channels of conversation like Twitter and Facebook, especially when you’re facing a crisis. Qantas came off second best last year when an engine failed. Numerous Twitter mentions and Facebook complaints later, there was serious analysis to show that Qantas would have lost customers as a result. But when the heat was turned up online, Qantas did have a well-planned communications strategy. They managed to play up the quality of the captain who flew the ailing aircraft, and the first thing they did was release his recording.

Getting out there quickly and dealing with complaints does minimise the damage. In Qantas’ case it might not have solved everything, but it certainly helped. We learn from the experience of others, and make sure our team stays across everything that comes through the Twitter and Facebook pipes.

Be prepared

Online is a new frontier, and it’s one you have to go into well prepared. We are learning every day how to operate in the new media space, and I think that the forging of communities will continue to be one of the strongest tools Crust has in continuing to take on the big pizza brands.

The strengths of operating in this space give us a real chance to listen to our customer, and to learn from them. They get the Crust brand because they are the ones who want fresh, great quality ingredients, and healthy pizza that doesn’t sit heavily in your stomach, and they are willing to talk about it. They are the ones who make our business fly.

One of the most important things I’ve learnt is that internet search engines are listings of reputation. Search engines are tools people use everyday to find everything from trips overseas to the cheapest petrol. You can either sit high at the top of that list when someone types in ‘pizza’ with glowing reviews, loads of people who have a good opinion about you and are sharing that, or you can be at the top of the list with negative reviews. I know which one I’d rather Crust to be.

Michael Logos

Michael Logos

Michael Logos is the CEO of Crust Pizza.

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