Case Study: Hungry Howie's Marketing and Branding Strategy at 40

Last year there was an inspiring celebration of the American Dream - and a tinge of sadness, too - as Hungry Howie's Pizza marked its 40th anniversary. The company was founded by Jim Hearn (aka Howie, but I'll get to that at the end of this column) in 1973 in Taylor, Mich.

Steve Jackson, who delivered for that very first location, joined forces with Hearn to open the second location in 1976, and the pair began franchising Hungry Howie's Pizza in 1982. Today, there are 575 units open in 22 states, and Jackson is president of the company. The business is focused on carry-out and and is known as the home of "Flavored Crust Pizza."

Since Hungry Howie's has 20-, 30- and 40-year-old locations, it's safe to say the product is a proven winner. But having a 40-year tradition brings special challenges, too. To grow, it is essential to constantly refresh the brand. To compete with the big national chains for a larger market share, Jackson and his team developed a wholistic growth strategy focused on getting and keeping more customers. The effort includes a new store prototype that has a fresh, contemporary look and feel. As new locations open and existing units convert to the new look, the company's national ad fund is committed to aggressive marketing to increase positive awareness and ultimately drive more traffic, more trial, and more sales.

The plan has to be customized by market because Hungry Howie's has heavy concentration in Michigan and Florida, where broadcast makes sense, but that mode of marketing is not feasible across all markets in 22 states. Where broadcast marketing makes sense, Hungry Howie's aims to connect with the female consumer who is typically making the buying decisions for her family. They've developed TV ads with a funny, quirky "Hungry Howie's Ad Agency" format (check them out on YouTube), and bought high-visibility TV programming during "The Voice," "Modern Family," and even the Super Bowl.

In emerging or less mature markets, the company is committed to "brutally defending" the mailbox with very targeted promotions that consistently build the brand and sell the goods. Couponing is a fact of life in the world of and the company goes head-to-head with the big chains. Howie's competes by leveraging its differentiated product with distinctive creative materials, delivered when it matters most to their target customers.

One of the strongest ways the brand connects with its target female customers is through a program that has been going on since 2009: Love, Hope, & Pizza. Back in those dismal days of the recession, competitors were cutting prices - and sometimes quality, too. Howie's took a different approach: they printed 13 million pink pizza boxes in support of the National Breast Cancer Foundation. For the month of October, they donated $1 to the NBCF for every large pizza ordered and additional money when customers purchased pink breast cancer awareness ribbons at Hungry Howie's locations. The company added 200,000 Facebook fans, and some video testimonials were shared by 2 million viewers.

The financial results: Hungry Howie's donated more than $200,000 to help women detect and prevent cancer. And the company has notched 11 consecutive quarters of comp sales growth, with percentage increases far above the industry average.

To keep the momentum going and to further accelerate comp sales growth for franchisees, the company has launched "Howie Doing?" - a system-wide customer experience measurement program to convert more of their hard-won new customers into repeat customers, repeat customers into regulars, and regulars into brand advocates. With the near-universal adoption of smartphones, customers can not only take a survey on their device about their most recent experience, the brand's true advocates also can share their recommendations directly from the survey to social media and review sites.

The vision is that marketing and operations are working hand-in-hand to build the business by providing a distinctive - and superior - customer experience at every stage of customer engagement.

Now about the company's name. Back in the 1970s, the busiest in Ypsilanti, Mich., was called Hungry Charlie's. And when Jim Hearn was just in his thirties, his even younger managers were in awe of his success in business. They nicknamed him "Howie," after the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Thus the name.

And the tinge of sadness I mentioned? Jim Hearn, whose remarkable career inspired so many others to reach for the American Dream, died just a month before the 40th anniversary celebration of Hungry Howie's. As Steve Jackson said at the company's 2013 convention, "He was a leader and a visionary and we will miss him, but his legacy will carry on."

SMG Chief Evangelist Jack Mackey, CFE, helps clients transform the customer experience. Click here for a complimentary copy of "The Millennial Consumer: Debunking Stereotypes."

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