NFL sponsors have been in a precarious position as of late. Brands like Nike have actively engaged with the league’s national anthem controversy, naming former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick – who started kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2016 – the face of its ‘Just Do It’ campaign’s 30th anniversary.
Papa John’s, the league’s pizza sponsor since 2010, blamed player anthem actions for poor pizza sales, souring their relationship with the NFL. Following the resignation of CEO and founder John Schnatter in December 2017, the company ended its partnership with the NFL on February 27.
Pizza Hut quickly jumped in less than 24 hours later, signing a multi-year partnership with the NFL. The company’s focus has been on the fans, not the controversies – they offer a $7.99 price point, pizza boxes with augmented reality features and chances for customers and fans to win everything from Bose speakers to tickets to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
“Pizza Hut is a great company and they have great people,” said Renie Anderson, senior vice-president of NFL partnerships, sponsor and consumer products. “These guys have jumped in 110% making it a lot of fun. It’s fun, but it’s also authentic.”
The company has four NFL team-specific deals with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Chargers, and five player deals with Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Tyler Lockett, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Brown and Smith-Schuster, both wide receivers for the Steelers, have been featured prominently in Pizza Hut’s national campaign throughout their debut season as league partner. One commercial is both players doing the shoot dance with a delivery guy; a choreographed move the two later mimicked in the endzone after Brown scored against the Chargers in Week 13.
“What’s been really well received have been JuJu and Antonio Brown—they’re very popular not only locally, but nationally,” said Ryan Huzjak, Steelers vice-president of sales and marketing. “When the success of a commercial ties to on-field success, it generates a lot of buzz and excitement.”
Marianne Radley, Chief Brand Officer of Pizza Hut, echoed the same sentiments.
“Working with AB and JuJu over the past few months has really brought the fun, celebratory elements of our campaign to life — on and off the field,” Radley said. “Our player relationships have been instrumental in bringing our broader partnership to life.”
The brand partnered up with Rams running back Gurley and Seahawks receiver Lockett to help promote children’s literacy through the league’s My Cause My Cleats campaign. Pizza Hut has been encouraging kids to read since 1984 via their BOOK IT! Program.
“They’ve taken what they’re authentic to and found two guys who are really focused on that and integrated it in their campaign to help support those causes,” Anderson said.
For Pizza Hut, owned and operated by Yum! Brands, the partnership with the NFL hasn’t paid massive dividends just yet. In the United States, same-store sales were up 1% in the third quarter and were flat in the second quarter following an increase of 4% in the first quarter of 2018.
With the NFL regular season wrapping up this weekend, all eyes for the league and its sponsors including Pizza Hut are focused on the playoffs.
Pizza Hut has teamed up with Pepsi, a partner since 1958 and an NFL sponsor since 2002, for a Super Bowl LIII promotion where fans can win a trip to Atlanta for the game as well as an on-field experience during the halftime performance.
“It’s awesome; they’re coming in and they’re really activating in a big way,” Anderson said. “The Super Bowl isn’t just about the game on Sunday, it’s all week. It’s great when (league) partners can work together.”