View from the C-Suite: Pizza Pizza goes beyond the promotional

One year into her role as VP marketing, Alyssa Huggins discusses leading product and marketing innovation for the brand.

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Pizza Pizza’s 2018 holiday campaign featuring a “Magical Holiday Shirt” did not fall far outside its promotional roots. But the way in which the brand presented itself creatively, with t-shirts emblazoned with images worthy of the ugliest of ugly holiday sweaters (including one of gingerbread man riding a dolphin) was surely outside of its regular wheelhouse.

It’s the kind of experimentation and innovation Alyssa Huggins has sought to bring to Pizza Pizza since she was named VP of marketing a year ago this month.

Huggins, who has an agency background and has worked on the McDonald’s business while at Cossette and on Loblaw, Sears, Future Shop, P&G and Coca-Cola over the course of her career, now oversees national marketing for Pizza Pizza and Pizza 73, its sister chain in Western Canada, covering more than 750 locations across Canada.

Since stepping into the role, she has looked to hone Pizza Pizza’s consumer research capabilities and amplify its use of data. She has added four members to the marketing department to help support those plans, including Michelle Read-Kulig as director digital and loyalty and Michael Lee as director of marketing insights, as well as a dedicated marketing manager for Pizza 73 and a production manager to oversee the content the brand puts out each week.

She recently spoke with strategy about what she’s bringing to the role and how she’s helping the 50-year-old Pizza company innovate.

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What role do you expect your expanding marketing team to play within the company?

One of the areas that we’ve been working on, and it was happening before I came, was improving our digital experience. We will soon have a new web app experience. Michelle [Read-Kulig], given her background and expertise at Loblaw and PC Plus and on the agency side, she was a great fit to help stitch together the digital experience and how we’re interacting with consumers from a digital and loyalty perspective. Our goal is to have that single view of the customer. We’ve had a longstanding loyalty program, but we did an audit of that and we’re in the early stages of evaluating where we go. One of the things that we’ve worked on as an organization, beyond marketing, was this idea of extreme convenience and how we can make customer experiences as frictionless as possible at every touchpoint.

CEO Paul Goddard previously described your mandate as helping maintain Pizza Pizza’s position as “a progressive, innovative and experience-driven QSR brand.” How have you set out to achieve that?

We did customer segmentation and brand positioning work, so that we could solidify our position moving forward. For us, it’s about working towards elevating the brand beyond just promotions. I know when we first talked, that was probably one of the first things I said. We’ve continued to do deals – it’s a necessary part of the business. We have to have this simultaneous long- and short-term view on both our brands, because there’s Pizza 73 as well.

When it comes to marketing, innovation can come in many forms. We were first to market with cauliflower crust. We came out with avocado fries, which were also a first-to-market. Then there’s customer experience innovation. There are some things – we can’t talk specifics yet – but we’re looking at how we can make that digital experience a bit more innovative for customers. We just want it to be really easy to order. In some cases, we’re looking for cultural opportunities for the brand to have an authentic voice. One example is activating against 4/20 and cannabis legalization. Recognizing that it’s not for all of our customers, but it’s definitely a big thing for Canadians in general.

Have broader health and wellness trends had an impact on the category? 

The pizza category, as with the QSR category, is pretty flat. Pizza has always been an indulgent occasion for consumers, but it doesn’t have to mean that it’s going to be totally unhealthy. Consumers are aware that they’re still wanting to reward themselves. Pizza is a food that people are really emotionally tied to – there are so many memes out there about how people feel pizza is the perfect food group. So I don’t think they’re necessarily willing to get up and walk away from it.

How has your agency background, in particular working for QSR brands, had an impact on how you’ve approached your role at Pizza Pizza?

From conducting a formal agency search on the media side – it was important to me that it was a fair search process, that we weren’t asking agencies for spec work – but ultimately, it was important to find the right partner. That’s one way in which it has influenced the work we do. And then agencies are a pretty great starting point for extreme organization and process and managing a lot of moving parts, so I think I’ve brought the process side of things to the team. I’ve brought a different perspective to the planning process and how we think about our business. And then just the value of creativity. The brand has done some great work over the years, but I’m pushing us to continue to elevate the work and pushing for great ideas that are rooted in insight and ideas that just go beyond. Again, there’s always a space for the promotional, but that can go beyond the promotional.

This interview is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities. Sign-up here to receive the latest stories.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.