Before I take a semi-serious look at Pizza Hut's new Pie Tops Shoes, which can order pizza and pause live tv, let's get a few things out of the way. First, Pizza Hut is spending actual money on this so you can disavow of the notion that it's dumb. Yes it's absurd, yes it's hard to understand, but marketing and product innovation are usually rooted in good intention. Second, the explanation that it's simply a PR stunt is incomplete. Pizza Hut, and its parent company, Yum! Brands, are well-established companies with over a $1 billion in revenue. PR is a component, but designing a shoe is an expensive stunt--they're manufacturing and marketing an actual product. A bit extreme for a PR stunt (and nobody will outdo Oreo's ad from Super Bowl XLVII).
Let's start with some context. The fast food industry is commoditized. This means that the product and business model is mature, leaving competitors little room to eke out competitive edges. Product innovations in a commoditized space are short-lived. When Pizza Hut introduced stuffed crust pizza, others followed suit with their own "crust innovations." I imagine it helped Pizza Hut's revenue, but didn't create much long-term value. Just as we've seen in tech and user experience, there's plenty of room to improve customer experience in fast food.
In fact, fast food has become a hot bed for customer experience innovation. Recently we've seen KFC drones, Domino's ordering emoji's, and McDonald's ordering kiosks. Commoditized industries like fast food are competing by establishing brand, innovating on customer service, and following through with consistent marketing.
Let's take a look at what Pizza Hut might be thinking with these absurd pizza-ordering shoes.
Fortifying their brand through timely PR.
Okay, there is some element of PR stunt. They are clearly releasing the shoes around March Madness with the goal of establishing themselves as the "official pizza" of college basketball. They've already bought the rights to that title in a multi-year deal with the NCAA, but they're being smart by taking a step further. They are releasing a product representing the actual event their sponsoring--and it orders pizza. As a designer, I also greatly appreciate the delightful addition of being able to pause TV with the shoes. I can only imagine the setup to make that work is cumbersome, but the intent is much appreciated.
Experimenting with technology in low-risk ways.
This is a page right out of Snapchat's playbook. When Snap released Spectacles in late 2016, it was easy to write off as frivolous. But what they are really doing is experimenting with other ways to extend their product. The spectacles have been a bit of a mess financially, which shows they have a ways to go as a viable product line. But, they've been able to experiment with new technology that might create opportunity later (if they're smart).
Pizza Hut is doing the same thing with the shoes. They're using wearables and IoT to experiment with new ways to order their product. Unlike Snap, they likely won't manufacture millions of shoes, but they'll get valuable insight into consumer behavior that they never had before.
Extending customer relationships beyond their product.
Historically, Pizza Huts were, well huts. It's probably the only pizza chain I've actually sat down and eaten at. Today, that's changed dramatically. Their footprint has diminished. Down the road from me there is a pickup-only Pizza Hut, and in the other direction a hybrid KFC-Taco Bell-Pizza Hut. Meanwhile, delivery is a very quick exchange between you and the Pizza Hut brand. As a result, Pizza Hut has little time to establish a relationship with their customers.
The shoes help extend this relationship just a bit further. For those that do buy them, Pizza Hut will create longer-term brand loyalty. Even for those of us who won't ever interact with a pair of the shoes, Pizza Hut will leave an indelible mark on us as consumers
People don't engage with the Pizza Hut brand the way they used to and the industry leaves little room for competitive edge. While these shoes might be a gimmick, they could also lead to opportunities for Pizza Hut that help them create a longer-lasting brand while creating a safe environment to experiment with how new technology can augment their customer experience.