Papa John’s Takes a Dip; Shaq Comes to the Rescue in More Ways Than One

Having a real person associated with your brand can help your company connect with consumers on a personal level. It can also bring negative publicity from the actions or statements of those spokespeople. While it might be harder for audiences to connect personally with the Trix Bunny or Pillsbury Dough Boy, neither is likely to be in the news for making offensive statements or getting arrested.

That can’t be said for real-life figureheads or spokespeople.

We’ve seen several recent examples of this. Roseanne Barr issued a tweet calling former Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett the offspring of the “Muslim Brotherhood & Planet of the Apes.” ABC felt it couldn’t handle the massively negative association with Barr, and removed her from the “Roseanne” reboot, deciding instead to move forward with a spinoff called “The Conners,” sans Barr. We saw similar situations play out with President Trump and his daughter Ivanka both suffering business setbacks after backlash against them personally.

Papa John’s Feels the Pinch

And then there’s Papa John’s. Last July, John “Papa John” Schnatter resigned as chairman of the board of his namesake pizza company* after it was revealed he had used the N-word during a May conference call. The revelation and the subsequent media circus around Schnatter’s resignation and quarrel with the company he founded led to decreased sales and a stock market hit for Papa John’s.

It wasn’t the first time the Papa had caused some controversy around racially charged issues.

He made headlines in late 2017 for his negative comments to ongoing NFL player protests. Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting/kneeling during the national anthem in 2016, saying it was a gesture to protest police brutality and the oppression of people of color in the United States.

Papa John tarnished the image of his company’s brand and potentially alienated millions of potential customers with his statements. Could a turnaround come from an unlikely ally?

High Profile Spokesperson to the Rescue?

To dig itself out of a hole, the company made a big statement to reach out to people of color. A very big statement. “The pizza chain said [March 22] that basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal will be its new pitchman, appearing in TV commercials and promoting Papa John’s in other ways,” says an article for ESPN. “The company hopes O’Neal can repair its image and revive its sales after the company’s founder and namesake, John Schnatter, made racially insensitive remarks.”

Going All In

But Shaq’s not just a spokesman; he’s also on the board and a Papa John’s franchise owner.

Whether or not a Shaq-sized shake-up can turn around Papa John’s image and financials remains to be seen. Papa John’s issues serve as a cautionary tale about the influence a single person can have on a company’s brand. On the flip side, it’s also an example of the potential a strong ally can have on potentially reviving a brand.

*Schnatter has since sued and settled with the company and is selling off his shares.

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