Monday, March 10, 2014

Under the heat lamp: Sbarro's and America's pizza perceptions

Try to think of a time when anyone you know said: "Hey, let's pick up a Sbarro's pizza for dinner."

Odds are: never.

Sbarro isn't a destination eatery. You mainly find them in shopping malls and airports, and unless it's the lunch hour, the meal selections often look as if they've sat under a bright heat lamp longer than a Kardashian.

Today, Sbarro filed for bankruptcy reorganization a second time. You could target plenty of reasons why this chain's brand has been eclipsed by Papa John's, Domino's, or even Pizza Hut. Possible causes: saturated fat, sodium, or the reality that no one over age 17 enjoys the experience of eating in a mall's food court under flying sparrows.

My view: Sbarro might have done better to personalize its brand to help connect with consumers. They clearly don't have the media ad dollars to compete with Papa John's (and quarterback and Buick pitchman Peyton Manning), leaving their social media presence as one way to build relationships with its consumers.

Sbarro is on Facebook and Twitter, so there's a foundation to build upon. But these platforms need to drive relationships with customers. Sbarro's mages on both Facebook and Twitter look mostly like ads, not their customers. Example:

One image on Twitter shows two nightclubbers, doing their Lady Gaga thing. It's a submission from a Twitter follower of Sbarro, but it doesn't connect with anyone besides that one contributor.

Or consider the image at right. I'm a Star Trek fan, but this doesn't make me want to drive to a mall for a slice of pizza. (And there are better versions of pizza wheel cutters that resemble the starship Enterprise.)

Perhaps Sbarro is supporting some national or local charities. But it's hard to find evidence of this on social media or their own web site.

No one wants to see Sbarro fail, close stores, and send many workers to the unemployment line. But competing in fast-food requires more than republishing your ads and your followers' snapshots.

Lesson: a good PR strategy plan can't change Sbarro's menu, but it can persuade your customers that you're about much more than cheese, sauce, and folded pizza slices.