Why Domino's Latest Ad Was a Smart, If Unintentional, Marketing Play

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Does Domino's commercial for Specialty Chicken take a subtle jab at competitors – and will the reference pay off?

A Domino's commercial for Specialty Chicken celebrates innovation with the concept that "failure is an option." Midway through the ad, a Domino's pizza chef is shown holding a failed product: the cookie pizza. "I don't want to talk about it," she says, unsmiling, to the camera.

With Pizza Hut rolling out its Ultimate Hershey’s Chocolate Chip Cookie earlier this month and Papa John's debuting its Mega Chocolate Chip Cookie last fall, the Domino's ad – which began airing in April – seems well timed. But was the cookie reference actually just a witty one-liner, or a more pointed comment aimed at its competition?

Related: Papa John's Founder on What Makes an Outstanding Franchisee

"I just thought that it was a great, funny moment," says Matti Leshem, a branding expert and CEO of Protagonist. "Whether they intended to or not, clearly they're treating [pizza cookies] as something that would have never flown."

In 2007, Domino's did, in fact, sell a product called Oreo Dessert Pizza that failed to catch on in the marketplace. Highlighting failed products might seem like a risky move for the pizza chain, but Leshem says that by being transparent about past shortcomings, customers are more likely to trust Domino's new products, like the Specialty Chicken (essentially, pizza with chicken breast as the crust). Plus, while chicken is a hot item across the fast-food and pizza industry, Domino's managed to use the commercial to make sure that its new chicken dish is still connected with Domino's overall brand as a pizza-first company.

"Companies that don't underestimate the consumers' intelligence are always going to lead," says Leshem.

Related: The One City in America Where You Can Get Domino's 'Breakfast Pizza'

But, what about the cookie pizza? Is this the beginning of a cookie pizza war, fought between Domino's, Papa John's and Pizza Hut?

Probably not.

"The reference was in no way a knock on our two competitors; the timing of our spot and their product launches was merely coincidental," says Domino's spokesperson Tim McIntyre. "The ad is meant to show that we’re not afraid to innovate, to try new things... even if they aren’t always successful."

Pizza Hut and Papa John's also aren't biting. Both companies say that they don't see the commercial as a reference to their products.

"We are actually taking a poke at ourselves, not the other guys," says McIntyre. "We don’t play that game. They do that enough to each other without us chiming in."

Chain-on-chain bickering aside, Leshem calls the cookie pizza callout a win.

"If you didn't know about cookie pizza, you'd think [the commercial] is smart," says Leshem. "If you happened to know cookie pizza is a product, you'd be like wow, that's doubly smart."

Related: Long Seen as Boring, Chicken Is Becoming a Buzz Item for Restaurants

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