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Domino's Pizza has a confession to make: the pizza it has been selling for decades sucks. If you ever thought that the crust tasted like cardboard, or that the sauce tasted like ketchup, Domino's isn't going to argue with you. It knows.

The pizza chain, which got a crash course in social media disaster management last year, has me thinking: is it ever a good idea to admit that you product sucks?

Chances are that if you run a business, you've received criticism from a customer. While the customer isn't always right, many times the customer is, which is why successful businesses are generally those that take what their customers have to say seriously.

But how should companies address the worst customer criticism of all: your product just plain sucks?

With its new recipe, Domino's has done what any smart business should do. It went back to the drawing board and made changes to the product in an effort to address customer complaints. When it comes to how it's marketing those changes, however, Domino's is, as AdAge's Bob Garfield put it, admitting to its customers that it has been "knowingly serving cardboard and ketchup for four decades."

That's not flattering and will hardly inspire customers to put their trust in the Domino's brand going forward, even though Domino's is trying to spin its new recipe as "50 years in the making". It also devalues the product for customers who actually liked the old Domino's product as is, cardboard and all.

From this perspective, Domino's may have made a huge blunder. Sure, consumers often appreciate a brand that can poke fun of itself. But Domino's is effectively engaging in the marketing equivalent of sadomasochism right now by essentially telling customers it has been selling horrible pizza to them.

In my opinion, a company that comes to the conclusion its product sucks should fix it and engage in positive marketing around the correction. "We've been listening to you and your feedback has helped us build a better product" is appropriate. "You were right: our product has sucked all these years. But we finally got around to fixing it" isn't. The former highlights that the company is responsive to customers and treats feedback as actionable; the latter sends the message that the company hasn't never cared about quality, until now.

The interesting thing to me about this subject is that many consumers today are surprisingly accepting of imperfection. This is evident online, where alpha and beta products can build loyal userbases despite their frequent shortcomings. Why is that? The willingness of the company behind the product to make it better and to listen to users matters more than the current state of the product. Show your users that you care and are working to build a better product for them and they'll reward you.

The lesson here for Domino's, and other companies grappling with product quality issues: skip belated apologies because when it comes to communicating product-related messages to your customers, actions always speak louder than words.

Photo credit: Sebastian Mary via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 18 January, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2378 more posts from this author

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uumode

The only company I know of that outwardly advertises that their product 'sucks' on a persistent basis, is Marmite.... but it works.

over 6 years ago

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Jason Smith

Remember Gerald Ratner? Opps?

over 6 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

Updating the product coupled with an amazing new online pizza builder is a great way to pull back customers. The conveniance of using that new pizza builder is enough to get me to purchase.

over 6 years ago

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Walter Pike

You know what it is.

For one simple reason - your customers know that already and they are telling their friends.

The days of being able to support a brand based on trying to BS people have fortunately gone.

Coming clean is a killer strategy.

In around 1988 we were given a wine brand - nearly dead. I decided to reposition it as exactly what it was - a good everyday drinking wine - stuff you would drink with your mates. The brand manager disassociated himself from the strategy and wrote a letter to the MD saying so.

The MD who knew that they would kill the brand at the end of that year  - backed the team.

We saved the brand and won a bronze Cannes.

And that was before we could leverage connections.

over 6 years ago

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Promotional Products

Patricio,

I agree, at some points your hands are tied, and you just have to be honest and let people know you dropped the ball, but are working to improve it.  The thing that surprised my about Dominos is that they are a household name and admitting they messed up the thing they are known for.  At first I thought it was crazy, but after another viewing of the commercial, I was impressed.  In fact, I ordered one of their pizzas and was surprised at how it tasted.  Pretty good indicator that people want honesty. Thanks for the post

over 6 years ago

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turbo

Great topic, I wondered the same thing when I saw the ad. I think Dominos is an exceptional case for a couple of reasons.

1) Everybody already knew the pizza sucked.

2) Their PRODUCT up until now has been convenience, not quality.

3) Agree with previous poster, people now are looking for honesty more than ever.

I'd liken this to an alcoholic who finally admits "I have a drinking problem". Usually it's the first step to recovery.

over 6 years ago

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John Koblinsky, Market Researcher at MetLife

I agree with "We've been listening to you and your feedback has helped us build a better product." A positive spin on their position in the market may not inspire the short term buzz, but will help with long-term market share.  Admitting the product sucks can do serious damage on overall employee morale, especially if those employees have no control over the product--hardly unifying.

I also agree with Walter Pike's "coming clean strategy," but Domino's didn't do that. You won't hear "quality" mentioned in the commercial, just more ingredients.  By now most people understand that quality has an effect on taste. Better quality for the same cheap price would have been a powerful statement. More flavors for the same price is a value proposition from a time before refrigeration.

In the end, I tried the new pizza from two different franchises and the results varied in taste from "a garlic crust that was better" to "the same old taste." People want honesty and they like to be pleasantly surprised, but when there is negative variation from franchise to franchise you've just burned a bridge. I got my money back from the second place at least.

over 6 years ago

Chris  Baird

Chris Baird, Bid Co-ordinator at Technophobia Ltd

  "You were right: our product has sucked all these years. But we finally got around to fixing it"

If you didn't like Domino's, this approach just might be enough to respect the brutal honesty. It's a contentious message and let face it, its got us talking about it...

Besides if it's the same minds behind this as the minds behind the Domino's- Virgin media deal,  where you can order a pizza on your tv and they'll put on you tv bill then I'm with them. I think the pizzas are alright but the prices are outrageous, but then again Domino's keep me in the occasional order by sending targetted DM deals. With good retention marketing and convenience on their side, they may only have to improve their pizza's marginally to give the campaign legs in the longer term (albeit fat, podgy legs)

We've been listening to you and your feedback has helped us build a better product" - This message is a nothing message...I 'd just think..pffffff

over 6 years ago

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Jeff

The larger question is: is it ever OK for your product to suck?  The answer: NO.  If you represent great value for money but your product sucks on an absolute scale, OK.  If your product is awesome at some things and sucks at others, absolutely, you should admit the downside of your product.  But your product should never just out and out suck.

And frankly, Domino's would have been far better off saying something like: "Hey, we've delivered fast food pizza that millions of customers have relied on to get to their door fast and to taste more than good enough to feed a room full of hungry people. But we've never been the choice of foodies and serious pizza connoisseurs for rather obvious reasons.  Well, we decided fast food pizza wasn't good enough, so..."

I mean, don't insult my intelligence by acting shocked - shocked! - that people found your pizza to be 3rd rate.  Just admit that your food was what it was and tell me how you've fixed it.

over 6 years ago

Matthew Phelan

Matthew Phelan, Director and Co-Founder at 4Ps Marketing

Software companies seem to inadvertently do it every time they release new version 26.565 of their new world beating package.

over 6 years ago

Fran Jeanes

Fran Jeanes, Internet Business Consultant at i-contact web design

The Ratners fiasco is still very much in my memory bank and that was about 20 years ago! When Gerald Ratner told the country that his store sold "total crap" it cost his company £500 MILLION. So, I think the lesson learned from that mistake is it's NOT OK to tell consumers your product sucks.

over 6 years ago

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malcolm johnston

I think most people were aware that Domino's wasn't very good. I can't remember the last time I ordered from there. I do think that the public will forgive them very quickly (or at least forget about their confession). It's becoming a very common thing to admit to shortcomings and expect forgiveness. Maybe they can get Tiger Woods to be their spokesman.

over 6 years ago

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Christopher

Haha, "We listened to you, our pizza sucked but now it doesn't", loving it! What is amazing is that, if their pizza sucks, how did they get so huge in the first place, isn't product the kind in terms of marketing?

about 6 years ago

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