In 2010, Domino's had a problem. Sure, Domino's was one of the biggest pizza delivery chains in the world. In fact, research firm Brand Keys named it the top overall pizza chain.
Speed of delivery and convenience of ordering -- Domino's was the first in the industry to introduce mobile ordering, to gamify the ordering process, and to allow customers to track their orders -- were unmatched.
When it came to taste, though, Domino's came in tied for last with Chuck E. Cheese, the children's pizza-party chain.
The good news? You could get your pizza really, really fast.
The bad news? You then had to eat it.
"This is a company," said CEO Patrick Doyle, "that had built the whole brand around fast and reliable delivery, and ... we realized that everyone in the world who wanted fast, convenient pizza was already buying from us, and the people who wanted a great pie simply were not."
The taste issue was so bad -- and so widespread -- that when Domino's ran its own consumer tests, it found that that people liked the same pizza less if they knew it was from Domino's than if they thought it was a pizza from another chain.
"We had somehow created a situation," Doyle said, "where people liked our pizza less if they knew it was from us."
While a complete recipe reinvention seemed risky -- CMO Russell Wiener called it as big a risk as McDonald's reinventing the Big Mac -- slumping sales and a stagnant share price made the decision one most companies would have made.
But another decision was not.
"Worst excuse for pizza I've ever had."
Domino's could have taken a page from most any company's playbook: Work behind the scenes to remedy the problem, while doing everything possible to downplay publicity and customer awareness in the meantime.
After all, admitting a problem naturally brings more attention to that problem. "Our pizza kinda sucks" is the last thing potential customers want to hear.
Instead, Domino's actively sought feedback through its Tracker app, and encouraged customers to upload photos in its "Show Us Your Pizza" campaign.
And then it shared some of that feedback in national ads and on an uncensored -- except for profanity -- Times Square video billboard.
Like, "Microwave pizza is far superior." Like, "Worst excuse for pizza I've ever had." Like, "The taste of its crust is like cardboard," one the company said it heard "over and over and over."
The CEO appeared in some of those ads. Product and marketing managers. Chefs.
The company took the feedback, shared the feedback, embraced the feedback, and as Doyle said, promised to "work days, nights, and weekends to get better."
The result was a case study in generating massive product improvement publicity and awareness. Domino's didn't say, "What was great, is now even better," a common approach that no one pays attention to.
Instead, Domino's leveraged the "appeal" of negative feedback; research shows people naturally seek out news that is predominately negative. That got people talking. That got people interested -- in both the story and the pizza.
Plus, the fact feedback was often shared publicly made more people likely to give feedback. Which gave the company more data, more insights, and more users of its mobile app.
And a lot of free publicity for its new recipes.
But, possibly most important, Domino's showed vulnerability.
It's hard for people -- much less companies -- to admit a weakness or failure. Yet Domino's did what great leaders often do. It acknowledged it had a problem, and asked for help in addressing that problem.
And it reaped the benefits: Same-store sales growth increased 10.4 percent between 2009 and 2010. As for long term? If you had invested $1,000 in Domino's 2004 IPO, your stock would be worth more today than if you had invested $1,000 in Google's 2004 IPO.
And then there's this: "By saying what we said about the pizza, we blew up the bridge," noted Wiener. "That's what made it so much more powerful. If it didn't work out, there was no place to retreat to. There was no going back."
When your customers know you have a problem -- better yet, when you know you have a problem -- own it. Admit it. Embrace it.
And then fix it.
Because admitting a weakness won't cause you to lose respect, with your customers or your employees.
Especially if you then ask for help and work hard to overcome it.