WashU Expert: Papa needs … a new name?

Pizza chain should stress values, new leadership first, then study if brand change necessary

(Image: Shutterstock)

Papa John’s should consider whether it needs a facelift and a new identity after its highly recognizable founder resigned amid continuing controversy.

That’s the perspective of a public-relations expert, longtime practicing professional and leader in business communications at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School.

Catherine Dunkin headshot

“I do believe they will need to distance themselves” from John Schnatter, who stepped down as chairman of the board July 11 after apologizing for using a slur about African-Americans during a May conference call, said Cathy Dunkin, a lecturer in management.

Schnatter’s latest departure follows his December resignation as CEO of the pizza chain, a result of remarks that included how the NFL’s handling of its anthem protests hurt shareholders of Papa John’s — whose status as an official league partner ended two months later. The founder remained front and center in the chain’s ubiquitous advertising, though Dunkin said the company is almost certain to shift its focus.

“The company should emphasize the new leadership team and strong company values that don’t include such insensitive attitudes,” said Dunkin, who held positions with Fortune 500 companies and global agencies in St. Louis, Chicago and Dallas. Similar to the Starbuck’s training two months ago in response to its racial controversy, but perhaps emphasizing efforts closer to Subway’s shift after its pitchman went to prison, “This could mean that all-company training would be a great idea as part of an overall strategic plan with messaging and stakeholder engagement.”

Ultimately, it could reach a point — after in-depth analysis — that Papa John’s must undergo a name change.

John Schnatter (Image: Shutterstock)

“Research can help them to determine whether the name should be retained,” Dunkin said. Such analysis would include: monitoring sales results, social media, even consumer polling and data. “The name may be salvageable with some sort of ‘new generation taking over’ messages, but we don’t really know.

“Obviously it’s expensive to build an entirely new brand — when they might be able to show that new people, new thinking and new practices are in charge. It’s too early to say that a drastic name change or rebranding is necessary; again, something like that requires intensive research and information. Short-term, they might be able to survive and thrive after some kind of public campaign starting with an apology stating clearly those aren’t the beliefs of the company, along with actions to support the assertions of new thinking.”