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Interviews/ General Management

The Interview: Kurt Kane, Global CMO, Pizza Hut

by Keith Loria
Contributing Writer

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Article Highlights:

  • When I started as CMO of U.S., it was really about developing a great team.
  • The “Make it Great” [campaign] has been incredibly impactful as as an internal rally cry and a connection point to customers.
  • Sometimes you have to flip things around to get a good result, and sometimes thinking “inside the box” helps tremendously.

Born and raised in Chicago—“the center of the pizza universe”—it might not seem a surprise that Pizza Hut’s global chief marketing and food innovation officer wound up in the pizza business. That is, until you realize that the West Point graduate was once leading an army platoon at an immigration camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In fact, marketing wasn’t even on Kane’s radar when he entered business school at the University of Texas at Austin in 1996 following his military career. Then he palled around with several brand-marketing students and decided it was a career path worth following.

Kane began his new career as assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble in 1998, moving on to Molson USA, Molson Coors Brewing Company, and Frito Lay before finally finding a home with Pizza Hut in 2008 as its vice president of brand marketing. He moved up the ladder quickly, becoming CMO, U.S., in 2011 and global CMO this past January. recently caught up to Kane to discuss, among many topics, how his military background prepared him for marketing, the many ways Pizza hut leverages digital media—mobile, in particular—and analytics, and the importance of thinking “inside the box.” Working for a pizza giant like Pizza Hut must get you into a lot of discussions about the best pizza. Why is it a food that resonates with so many and is so important in the culture of American society?
I come from Chicago, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the center of the pizza universe. People are very passionate about pizza there. For me and a lot of families out there, it has been a center of bringing families and friends together for a long time. My role here at Pizza Hut is an opportunity to continue that tradition going forward in fun and memorable ways. A West Point graduate, a distinguished military career—this is not a background that screams out “marketing.” Tell me about how you decided to make that career switch.
To be honest, thinking of a career outside of the military did not necessarily occur to me as I was in it too much. For me, going back to school was about identifying what a professional career would look like outside of the military, so I was exploring a lot of different paths. What I found was that the people I enjoyed spending my time with outside of the classroom were all pursuing brand marketing, so I started going deeper into understanding what that was about. I found that my personal passion for pop culture, for brands, and for advertising could actually lead to a job rather than just being what I enjoyed doing on the side. How do you think West Point and the military prepared you for the marketing world? Were there any skill sets you developed that trickle over?
I think this type of role is all about helping people connect—being able to connect with people both inside and outside the company is incredible important. Having gone to West Point, in my experience, it teaches you a very much servant leadership-type model, and it’s all about taking care of people working for you first to get to a more positive result. It’s a really effective approach I found in being able to build great teams.

At the same time, I’ve found that if you’re focused on taking care of other people, what you find is that you get very good at understanding what customers are looking for as well. They are quick to tell you what they are looking for, and if you have their mind-set at the center of your thinking, then you get very good at trying to be able to connect with them in powerful ways. What I’ve found is in my career of pursuing marketing, everything I personally do is really in service of two things. The first is building a great team that’s focused on connecting with the customer, and the second is finding out what it takes to connect with those customers and really give them what they are looking for. What was it specifically about Pizza Hut that you wanted to be a part of?
For me, the thing that was interesting about Pizza Hut is that it is far and away the world leader in a very competitive category. But, and this is incredibly important, it still has tremendous growth potential. Being part of an explosive growth company with an amazing people-first culture was something that I found incredibly attractive when I first joined. Now it’s my responsibility to keep those aspects of the company very much alive and flourishing. We try to do that by recruiting and engaging the top marketing talent in the world across 85 countries. You mentioned “explosive growth.” When you first started in the position, how did you go about getting on track for that? What were your initial goals?
When I started as CMO of U.S., it was about developing a great team. We did a lot of work in that area to develop a team and recruit people in to make sure our brand was contemporary and connected with what people were looking for. That team is fully in place now, and our talent is flourishing. I feel really good about where we are. Other goals we had that were incredibly important to my team included digital and social marketing and redefining how we went about connecting to customers through those channels. Can you give me an example on how you did that?
The breakthrough for us was landing on a campaign we called the “10 dollar any pizza,” launched in 2010. We’ve seen some competitors try to follow in that space, but for us it has continued to be a great workforce initiative that lets consumers know that they don’t need to settle for less than their favorite pizza. The pizza they want is incredibly affordable, and they don’t have to deal with restrictions or limitations that get in the way of value for most of the pizza competitors out there. You seem to have received some big mileage out of the “Make it Great” campaign as well. Can you talk about what has made that a success?
“Make it Great” for us has been incredibly impactful. The thing about “Make it Great” is that it serves two purposes. It’s an invitation to our customers, and it’s also a promise to our customers. We have found that it really resonates with our customers. I’ll give you an example: On the invitation side of it, every time a customer goes to order a pizza, we invite them to make a choice. We want them actively thinking about whether or not they are going to make it great with that particular order. We like that we can get them thinking about the choice they are making.

The promise side is a little different but no less important. When we talk about the Make it Great rally cry for our brand, we’re making a promise that we are going to deliver to customers very high expectations every single time they order from us. They should be high because no one does what we do the way we do it, and we just need to make it consistent every time. In our business, when you are doing marketing or advertising, we’re not just marketing to our customers. In the U.S. alone, we have over 150,000 team members. Our advertising reaches every single one of those team members, and we need to make sure that we are being crystal-clear. . .about what our brand promises and remind them consistently of what we need to do. “Make it Great” has been incredibly impactful for us both as an internal rally cry and a connection point to customers. How important has digital media been to the Pizza Hut brand?
Digital media is huge for our brand. It’s actually more important to our brand within our category than almost any category I can think of. The reason for that is we are always one moment away from an order. When you think about digital media, why you are seeing competitors so focused on it in the pizza category is because we know we’re so close to the ordering experience that we have to make sure we get that right. For us, our media has shifted significantly into digital. It will continue to grow over time. As it grows, we consistently look to innovate in this space probably more than any other. Keeping the buzz going with social media is important as well. How do you use social media platforms to your advantage?
For us, we have a program that we call Hut Lovers, which was initially an email program. We changed our mind-set around that, and it still plays an incredibly important role through email, but Hut Lovers connects people who are passionate about the Pizza Hut brand. [The program] brings them together consistently with relevant topics and conversation points and gets them involved in the discussion with Pizza Hut. Our Hut Lovers mind-set. . .has carried over into social media and paid huge dividends in that we were named one of the most engaged brands in social just this year. We have over 11 million Facebook fans active in our U.S. page alone, 26 million worldwide. Our engagement approach and our customer-first approach around social has been incredibly effective and continues to build strong relationships with customers through interaction.

[pagebreak] How has mobile played a role in your marketing efforts?
Mobile is no less important--probably more important than any of our other e-commerce platforms. For us, we have been committed to mobile for a long time. We were pioneers of almost every area of mobile ordering. We were the first with an iPhone app; we developed it because we knew we had to be in the space to get barriers out of the way for customers to order. If you think about portable ordering and the goal of putting ordering where customers are, just last year, for example, we introduced an Xbox app to be able to put our brand into the gaming environment so customers don’t even have to leave that space. For us at Pizza Hut, it’s all about [giving] customers access [to] our brand without any barriers, but also doing it in a way that simplifies the process and makes it fun and enjoyable. We haven’t seen anyone else with that focus in this category, and we feel it has given us a significant edge. The Xbox app is a great example, but can you cite another out-of-the-box idea that you have tried and seen success with at the company?
Ironically, one of the ways we think is sometimes you have to flip things around to get a good result, and sometimes thinking “inside the box” helps tremendously. We launched what we call the Big Dinner Box and another called the $10 Box—it was all about reinventing how people order pizza today. Instead of asking them to pick and choose a pizza solution on their own, we made it incredibly easy to be able to get a huge amount of food at an incredible value. Bringing all that together in one package is an innovation that really changed the shape of our menu significantly, and I think changed the way people order pizza from us and others after we introduced it.

CMO: Analytics is an important component of any marketing position. How do you use the data and metrics you collect to make choices that will help the company grow?
One thing we have is no shortage of access to information. One of the benefits that we see in the company from the explosion of digital and e-commerce is that we have a lot of information about what customers order and what type of customer chooses to order different types of products and why. We spend a lot of time and energy going through trying to anticipate what we can do to better service a customer on each order by presenting them with different menu selections that they may not have tried or taken advantage of, or finding the right kind of offer they might respond to.

One example that came from a data-driven approach is we are always trying to anticipate what a right offer is for a customer. What we were able to do was find a particular segment of customer who actually preferred a choice of offers vs. being presented with one single offer. We started sending them messaging that was connected to the ability to choose their own offers—almost like those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. We saw the purchase frequency and conversion rate rise, and it was 100 percent driven by an approach of understanding our customers. As a brand, Pizza Hut has more than 6,000 locations in the U.S. and another 5,000-plus in 94 other countries. What is the secret of Pizza Hut’s success?
The key to our company is no one function does anything independently. We are an incredibly cross-functional-driven company because you have to be in the way we interact with customers. We don’t have marketing initiatives, but we have company initiatives that are connected with consumers through marketing. What we are all proud of having accomplished over the past several years is really redefining value for pizza and for our company. We were able to change significantly the perception of our brand as it pertains to value and make our products a lot more attractive to customers because it’s a lot more affordable. It continues to be incredibly important every day. What is your marketing philosophy?
It’s really simple. What I try to do is keep things very straightforward. I had this experience across a few different brands, and at the end of the day what I’ve found [works] is if you can stand for something that matters and communicate it in a fun and memorable way, and live up to what you communicate every single time, [you’ll do] incredibly well. It’s not complicated at all. Yet, even though it’s not complicated, it can be really hard to get that accomplished. Get it down to the most simple and have it stand for something that matters, and you’ll get results. Describe the relationship you have with your CEO. What are his expectations of you and your team, and how are those expectations measured?
Scott Bergren is CEO of Pizza Hit and a very established pizza expert with more than 37 years of experience across the pizza category. Scott is a terrific leader and focused very much on starting at the restaurant level first, but making sure what we do is connected in fun and relevant ways for today. He’s a great marketer and great coach for me in how to think about marketing in attention-grabbing ways. He is largely seen throughout our company and the industry as a real thought leader, and someone who brings a lot of innovation thinking to the world of marketing. What do you consider to be the future of your position and marketing, in general?
I think the future of marketing for this job and across the job will continue to be reinventing itself with more one-on-one connections with customers. Along with that, marketing is going to go from an opt-out medium to an opt-in medium where consumers have options to choose to engage with you. What we have to really focus on is creating content and messaging interesting enough that people opt in [rather] than. . .walking away or changing the channel. We have to have incredibly high standards for our agency partners, who continually reinvent themselves and what they are doing, and make sure we are creating content in a way that consumers want to. . .voluntarily join the conversation.