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Thursday's opening kickoff isn't just the start of the 2018 NFL season, it's also the beginning of Pizza Hut's tenure as the official pizza sponsor of the league.
Pizza Hut has been an underdog in the pizza wars for several years, but the chain hopes its sponsorship will help turn the tide. The Yum Brands unit has already done some advertising and promotions around the National Football League draft, but this is its first real opportunity to entice football fans to order more of its pies.
Pizza Hut is adding a feature called Game Plan to its app to offer customers deals on the days their favorite teams play. Three hours before kickoff, a reminder will be sent to customers to see if they want to pizza to be delivered for the start of the game or during halftime. Customers will also be able to sign up for giveaways including $100 Pizza Hut gift cards and a trip to the Super Bowl in Atlanta in February.
As consumers move toward online and digital ordering, Pizza Hut chief brand officer Marianne Radley said it's important for the company to adapt. Fans are even shifting to watching more sporting events on mobile devices and social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Pizza Hut has trailed Domino's in converting customers to ordering online and via mobile. Domino's tech prowess has been credited with driving the brand's market share growth in recent years.
Pizza Hut is using the charismatic duo of Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers in its new advertising campaign. Smith-Schuster was previously featured in Pizza Hut's doorbell dance campaign during the NFL draft in April.
For Pizza Hut, football season is always a strong time for sales, Radley said. Having this partnership with the NFL will only make those sales stronger, she said.
Pizza Hut intercepted the sponsorship from Papa John's in February after its rival had a public falling out with the league following criticisms made by Papa John's founder and then-CEO John Schnatter. In November, he had blamed shrinking viewership of NFL games on protests during the national anthem and said that caused a dive in pizza sales at his restaurants. At the time, Pizza Hut said it had not seen the same impact on its sales.
However, the controversy lingers, and if it results in fewer fans watching football, then Pizza Hut will likely have fewer people seeing its promotions.
There is a great opportunity for Pizza Hut to make market share gains. Schnatter has continued to make media blunders since his comments last year. Notably, his use of the N-word on a conference call has resulted in a more than 10 percent slide in July sales at restaurants open more than a year.
For customers feeling queasy about Papa John's, Pizza Hut is extending this invitation: Join Pizza Hut's rewards program before Sept. 15, place one order of $10 or more and your next pizza is free.
"If you are unhappy with Papa Johns or any of the competitors, come join our rewards program," Radley said.
Papa John's is bracing for weaker sales in the second half of the year and possible store closures, so having a competitor entice its already wary customers could exacerbate its traffic issues.
"Our approach to this partnership is about the fans," Radley said. "We're not just slapping a logo on a pizza box."