'The Hut' gets ready for its TV closeup and says get lost to Pizza

lou carlozoMove over, G (Gatorade). And that squiggly red-white-and-blue symbol standing in for "Pepsi" on billboards across America? You've got company, with or without pepperoni.

Yet another fast food icon is moving to streamline, with Pizza Hut rebranding a significant portion of its chain as "The Hut."

"They're trying to be trendier and appeal to younger consumers, and that's such a tricky thing to do," said John Frank, editorial director for Marketing News, a publication of American Marketing Association. "But we're not sure if they're going to convert every store to The Hut. Our understanding is that this is not a chain-wide thing."

Not yet, anyway, and not all at once. But to drive the new name home, Pizza Hut (what else can we call it for now?) has launched what they bill as a first-of-its kind in-store, digital video network. Installed in 20 stores in Jacksonville, Fla., and four in Dallas, the network will appear in more locations into 2010, according to Mediaweek.

The media planning and buying company Mediaedge:cia (MEC) announced The Hut's new network on June 11, and made clear its intentions to spread the technology out to other retailers. Pizza Hut has dubbed it "Hut TV" (though we at WalletPop like the ring of "The Hutwork").

Here's how it works: Instead of third-party advertisers controlling Hut TV content, Pizza Hut's store and franchise operators do. This means that they determine the mix of programming, relevant information and promo material they want, with the potential to cater straight to the needs of local audiences.

This also signals a strategic shift for MEC. "This new system speaks to the changing role of MEC Retail," said David Sommer, Managing Partner of MEC Retail, in a prepared statement. "We are not just planning and buying media for our clients, but leveraging relationships to create effective tools that help clients actively engage their consumers to drive business."

Driving business is one thing, but a video screen can't cook a mean pizza. What's more, it remains to be seen how the Pizza Hut loyal will respond to any move toward a name change. (Remember how much people hated it when Prince changed his moniker to the Squiggly Symbol?)

And in an age of smart phones, information on demand and stimuli bombardment, it's an optimistic leap between new message technology in stores and people actually paying attention to it.

"It's too soon to tell if it will have any impact," says Frank. "TV networks in supermarkets basically promote products, so this is not anything revolutionary. But it will be interesting to see what kind of content goes up there. We're saturated with media now, and there's always the danger that people are going to tune this out. It will all come back to the content, and how different it's going to be. In a world where we're flooded with content, what's in there is all important."

All in all, it's a long way from the very first Pizza Hut ads, which featured the slogan "Putt Putt to Pizza Hut." The chain dates back half a century to 1958, when Dan and Frank Carney founded it in Kansas. The two former Wichita State University students borrowed $600 to open their first store; in 1977, the chain was sold to PepsiCo. for $300,000,000. With more than 12,000 locations worldwide, the chain is now based in Addison, Texas and has been part of Yum! Brands since 1997. As for the Carneys, they're still around, with Frank now a player in the Papa John's pizza chain.

Those who thought up "The Hut" campaign may not know this, but Pizza Hut got its name because the Carney Brothers ran out of room on their very first store sign. After the word "Pizza," only a three-letter word would fit. And "Hut" was it.
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