Pizza Hut CMO exits amid larger overhaul to marketing operations – Restaurant Dive

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Pizza Hut.

Dive Brief:

  • Pizza Hut parted ways with U.S. Chief Marketing Officer George Felix last Thursday amid a broader retooling of its marketing operations, parent company Yum Brands confirmed to Restaurant Business Magazine.
  • “George Felix is leaving Pizza Hut U.S. for a new opportunity outside of the restaurant industry, effective April 1,” a spokesperson said over email. “We wish George the very best and are grateful for his thoughtful leadership throughout an unprecedented year, and one in which the brand saw remarkable growth.”
  • Felix joined the pizza brand in February 2020 from KFC’s global marketing unit as part of a series of executive appointments that also included naming David Graves as chief brand officer and Kevin Hochman as interim president. Graves will now serve as general manager, stewarding all of Pizza Hut’s marketing operations, while Georgeanne Erickson will fill the brand officer role, Restaurant Business reported. Lindsay Morgan, previously director of brand communications, will act as CMO.

Dive Insight:

Pizza Hut parting ways with Felix speaks to ongoing volatility for the chief marketer appointment in a broad sense but also pressures particular to the chain. The extensive overhaul to leadership — Pizza Hut’s second in just over a year — suggests the brand is still experiencing growing pains as it tries to keep up with restaurant trends accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The brand historically focused on dine-in operations and was subsequently sluggish to adopt the types of online ordering and delivery features which rivals like Domino’s raced to innovate. While Pizza Hut has felt some sales windfall driven by COVID-19’s delivery boom — same-store sales were up 8% in the fourth quarter, as noted by Restaurant Business — it has frequently been a weak spot in parent Yum Brands’ portfolio.

Changes to marketing leadership could help spur a more significant turnaround as Yum ramps up a larger digital transformation plan. Additionally, Lynne Broad is stepping up as chief financial officer of the chain. 

Pizza Hut has built out a stronger digital playbook in the past few years, while the pandemic has enshrined online and mobile channels as essential for growth in the category. A need to rework strategy with these trends in mind has been apparent in recent moves by the brand. Last week, Pizza Hut announced it would double down on store concepts designed to accommodate digital orders and contactless curbside pickup. Pizza Hut has a dedicated pickup window for digital orders, which it calls The Hut Lane, at 1,500 U.S. locations, and will expand the offering in the months ahead.

Felix’s departure is also noteworthy for arriving on the tails of a new marketing campaign. The brand last month debuted a creative effort centered on the concept of “Newstalgia,” which puts a modern spin on Pizza Hut’s iconic branding elements. Humorous ads star actor and spokesperson Craig Robinson playing the retro version of Pac-Man.

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Yum Brands at the same time is growing more ambitious with digital technology, with steep implications for its brands’ marketing. The restaurant giant has made two acquisitions in the past month: the artificial intelligence business of Kvantum, a performance marketing firm, and the conversational commerce developer Tictuk Technologies. The former deal intends to “fast-track” Yum’s data strategy, including through better optimized media planning, while the latter will open new ways to order via mobile and messaging channels at point of sale.

Digital sales across Yum’s portfolio reached a record $17 billion in 2020, a roughly 45% year-on-year increase.