Boston Pizza’s secret sauce

With the simple brand proposition of making people happy, Steve Silverstone taps humour to break through the sea of sameness.

t’s a pretty simple concept, encapsulated in an even simpler tagline: “Here to make you happy.” But Boston Pizza has truly taken that goal to heart with a year of work that not only put plenty of smiles on faces, but also stirred up unprecedented buzz for
the brand (the proliferation of social media certainly didn’t hurt). It made Boston Pizza about something other than pizza with a wings campaign, continued to speak to dads (and their families) using humour and even changed its own name during the hockey season, all with impressive results.
Steve Silverstone, EVP marketing, says that Boston Pizza is on track to at least double the growth this year that the casual dining industry is reporting. So far, Boston Pizza’s Q2 same-store sales growth was 5.8% and Q3 was up 6.1%, following the trend of a 5.7% average increase per year over the past decade.
Since graduating from McGill in 1990, Silverstone has been working his way through the Canadian marketing who’s who – P&G, Pepsi and Labatt (his longest stint, lasting 10 years) – as well as agency side with Cossette on brands like General Mills and Shoppers Drug Mart. He got the call from Boston Pizza about three years ago.
He says he was drawn to the opportunity in part due to the chain’s explosive growth over the past few years. While its roots in Western Canada date back 47 years, it’s a relative baby in Quebec, where it entered the market seven years ago. Over the last decade, the number of restaurants across the country has doubled, now at more than 325. The chance to establish a national positioning for the chain and create an “ownable platform that sets the brand apart” appealed to Silverstone.
“He really came in and focused the organization from a marketing perspective,” says Darren Clarke, ECD at Taxi, Boston Pizza’s AOR. “He’s good at identifying where they’re going as a business, getting everyone on board and rallying the team around the objectives that need to be met for the year.”
One of those objectives, says Silverstone, has been breaking through the “sea of sameness” in casual dining. Boston Pizza’s competition varies by region – the biggest competitor in B.C. is far different from that of Quebec – so it has to stand out from a fairly wide and diverse pack.
“Everybody’s having a good time, the food looks fantastic and it’s just one big aspirational dinner party,” says Clarke about the typical advertising that comes out of the casual dining category. Silverstone and his team wanted to leave the undifferentiated dinner party behind and hit BP’s two target demos – families for the dining room and men for the sports bars – by going after their common denominator: dads.
This focus on fathers explains the chain’s big push this year for a product other than pizza. Knowing that the number one food item in sports bar is wings, Boston Pizza set out to improve its wings offering, and needed to communicate it. But, according to Silverstone, when the search for a real wing authority came up short, Boston Pizza created its own with help from Taxi by way of the “Professional Wing Critics Association,” a fictional organization that introduced Canadians to a whole new vocabulary, using terms like “flatties” and “drummies” to describe the wings.
The results blew away expectations, with same-store sales of wings increasing by 162% and wings becoming the fastest-selling menu item in the chain’s history.
“The logical extension to the creative approach is that if we’re here to make you happy, we want to make you smile with our advertising,” says Silverstone about BP’s strategy to embrace humour.
And hockey fans certainly enjoyed it when the chain changed its name during the NHL playoffs. Boston Pizza became (temporarily)  Montreal Pizza in Quebec and Vancouver Pizza in B.C. when those respective teams played the Bruins.
Silverstone explains that the idea originated two years prior during a lunch with Zip Communications – which works with BP in Quebec – when Boston was about to play Montreal in the playoffs (Boston ended up squaring off with Philly instead).
“We highlighted the dilemma of being a young brand named Boston Pizza in a market that’s passionate about the Montreal Canadiens,” explains Silverstone. “So we pulled the idea out a year later and it felt like the perfect opportunity.”
Aside from store signage, the campaign included pizza boxes, rink boards and OOH, handled by Montreal-based Touché!PHD. It garnered major media attention from the likes of ESPN and Sports Illustrated, but Silverstone was most proud of how fast his team reacted, working weekends to pull off the stunts. Vancouver Pizza became the number three trending topic on Twitter within 24 hours of posting, he says.
The chain even carried their now-signature wit through to a campaign for its Boston Pizza Foundation, which supports numerous charities across Canada. The campaign invited guests to donate $5 and in return receive five free kids meals. A spot featured a dad (naturally) who wants to impress his son so he buys a monster truck, but realizes he could have just taken the boy to Boston Pizza.
It’s not difficult for Silverstone to relate to BP’s marketing. After all, he fits into the target demo, being married with two sons. “It’s important to remain objective and put the guest first, but of course I consider our experiences as part of the overall evaluation,” he says. “[My family is] also customers and big critics, so it’s important they feel good about Boston Pizza’s marketing.”
Silverstone describes the relationship with his other creative collaborators, agency partners Taxi and PHD (BP’s media AOR), as equally frank: “There’s a lot of feedback that leads to honest dialogue, that leads to trust,” he says. “We don’t want to go through reviews, we don’t want to make changes. We want stability on our account, and we want to build trust over time to lead to better work.”

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