Web Exclusive | June 2012 | By Brendan O’Brien

Pizza Patrón’s Big Gamble

Company stands firm with controversial promotion.

Customer who ordered in Spanish would recieve a free pizza at Pizza Patron.
Customer who ordered in Spanish would recieve a free pizza at Pizza Patron.
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Pizza Patrón caused a national stir—and was the victim of protests—this week with a promotion that offered free pizza to anyone who ordered in Spanish. But the Dallas-based company stuck to its guns in an effort to assert its unique brand positioning and communicate with its core clientele.

The concept’s “Pizza, Por Favor” promotion, which ran at the franchise’s 104 stores on June 5, offered a large pepperoni pizza between 5 and 8 p.m. to any patron who ordered by saying “pizza, por favor,” or a similar phrase.

The promotion garnered plenty of free press in the preceding weeks, as well as praise from hungry customers. But it also angered many who felt it promoted the speaking of Spanish instead of English and even led to some customer protests.

“The phones have rung a lot with nasty phone calls, [and we’ve also received negative] e-mails and [messages] on our Facebook site,” says Andy Gamm, brand development director at Pizza Patrón. “The reality is that you don’t even have to speak Spanish. We’ll even coach you at the store. You do have to say the words, but they are a couple of words that anybody can say. So this isn't excluding anybody.”

Gamm says Pizza Patrón is trying to get out ahead of a broader cultural shift taking place in the U.S., and he notes that the pizza company has become a cultural symbol in its communities by creating a platform to discuss issues important to Hispanics.

About 70 percent of the chain’s clientele is Hispanic, and the promotion was intended to be a vehicle to invite non-Hispanics into the restaurants to participate, Gamm says. “We thought we could build a little bridge and create a fun experience that was a good fit for our brand and simple enough that anyone could participate,” he explains.  

The “Pizza, Por Favor” promotion is not the first Pizza Patrón promotion to spark controversy. In 2007, the company began accepting pesos at its stores, a move that culminated with death threats delivered to the corporate offices in Dallas.

“We live in this environment that, right or wrong, people are very sensitive. But in order to move the needle, you do need to push it a little bit.”

“I am always a little bit surprised at the intensity in the response that we get,” Gamm says.

The company learned to deal with crisis during the peso controversy, Gamm adds, and company officials decided early on with the “Pizza, Por Favor” campaign to grant every interview to the press, which gave them a chance to explain the reasons for the promotion. “This time around we were much better prepared because of that experience,” Gamm says.

“Their intention is to strengthen their relationship with their core customers, and that is a critical piece of that company's strategy,” says Laura Sonderup, managing director of Hispanidad, a Denver firm focused on reaching diverse consumer segments. “They know who their target audience is, they know how best to reach that target audience, and then that takes us to the conversation about tactics.”

Sonderup says officials at Pizza Patrón should be applauded because they are leveraging strong marketing expertise.

“That result is in moving the needle, and that is what any well-run company wants to do,” she says. “We currently live in this environment that, right or wrong, people are very sensitive. … But in order to move the needle, you do need to push it a little bit. Engaging people in a conversation is what all of us want to do.”

Hispanic marketing does not equal Spanish-language marketing, Sonderup says, because not every Latino in the U.S. speaks or wants to be communicated with in Spanish.

“Pizza Patrón is not simply saying that they want to target all Latinos,” she says. “What they are saying is that there is a sub-segment that represents a robust business opportunity for them, and that is a Spanish-preferred or Spanish-dominant consumer.”

“Pizza, Por Favor” is the first of three culturally diverse promotions Pizza Patrón planned to run this year. But company officials decided to postpone the second promotional campaign, scheduled for July 4, due to the negative reaction caused by the “Pizza, Por Favor” promotion.  

“We are not eliminating it; we are just going to wait for a better time and let things cool down a bit,” Gamm says.