How Domino’s Used Psychology to Become the World’s Biggest Pizza Chain

Jennifer Clinehens

minute read

In 2009, a viral video almost destroyed Domino's Pizza. 

But with some hard work, difficult choices, and a bit of psychology, they managed to go from being the world’s worst pizza chain to the biggest — with 17, 000 stores in 90 countries as of 2022. 


Dominos' PR Crisis Begins

In one of the biggest brand PR crises in memory, Dominos employees — “two idiots” as the company’s spokesperson later called them — decided that their afternoon was best spent doing gross and illegal things (click at your own risk) to peoples’ orders.

Customers were outraged, and sales suffered. 

In the community where the videos were filmed, sales fell 50% and 600 Dominos workers were laid off as a result. Unsurprisingly, the Dominos brand also took a huge hit. According to a Zeta Interactive survey, negative customer sentiment increased 234% (from 19% negative to 64% negative) almost overnight. 

It was clear that an apology wasn’t going to be enough to recover from a disaster this big.  


“Disgusting Dominos”: The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back

The viral videos were the last straw for a brand that had suffered from poor perception for a while. Customers described Dominos’ products as the “worst pizza I ever had,” saying the “sauce tastes like ketchup” and the “crust tastes like cardboard.”

But instead of ignoring this criticism, CEO J. Patrick Doyle overcame it (with a bit of psychology). 


1. Pratfall Effect: Pizza Turnaround Campaign

To address the poor quality of Domino’s products, the CEO starred in a marketing campaign called “Pizza Turnaround.” These commercials shone a light on the brand’s critics and vowed to fix their product.  

“There comes a time when you know, you gotta make a change.” 
— J. Patrick Doyle, Dominos CEO

“Pizza Turnaround” not only documented the journey to create better pizza it also showed Dominos executives and chefs reading (and responding to) extremely tough critics of their product.

The campaign helped kick off Dominos’ comeback. 

But why did it work?

It’s down to a psychology principle called the Pratfall Effect. 


What is the Pratfall Effect?

The Pratfall Effect says that our mistakes can actually make us seem more likable, not less. But it only works if you’re already seen as competent or an above-average performer.

That’s why the “Pizza Turnaround” campaign worked so well — the commercials reminded folks how much they had loved Dominos in the past, then apologized for the brand’s current mistakes and shared a plan for how they planned to fix them. 


The Domino's Post-Crisis Strategy

CEO J. Patrick Doyle launched the“Pizza Turnaround” campaign, but he didn’t stop at the product. 

He repositioned Domino’s — not only as a great pizza brand — but as a technology brand that made better pizza possible. 

Here’s how: 


1. Operational Transparency: Dominos Pizza Tracker

Dominos was an innovator in pizza delivery from the start. Because the original Dominos store was too small for a dining area, the owner hired unemployed factory workers to deliver to customers’ homes. 

But there was a big problem with pizza delivery — it often made the process a black box. 

You might order at 7 pm and expect the pizza to arrive in 40 mins to an hour, but you were left in the dark between your phone call and the pizza (hopefully) showing up at your doorstep. 

Dominos knew they had to do something to stop customers from calling the store. They soon realized there was already a system they could use to improve order transparency — their order management software.

The software was used to create the Dominos Pizza Tracker, which showed customers exactly where their order was. It improved the customer experience and the store’s operations.

Dominos Pizza Tracker Operational Transparency

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Some Domino’s locations even went further, with a store in Utah setting up webcams in their kitchens so you could watch your pizza being made. 

Why did this approach work? 

It’s down to a principle called Operational Transparency. 


What is Operational Transparency?

Operational Transparency is the inclusion of windows into your company’s process so customers can see what’s happening behind the scenes. 

According to recent research, experiences that use Operational Transparency cause customers to value products more highly and can even make people happier.


The Pizza Tracker Controversy

Now, it’s worth saying that there is some controversy surrounding the accuracy of the Pizza Tracker. Urban myths have accused the Tracker of being a fancy timer, instead of being a real-time tracker. 

Although Domino’s insists that the Pizza Tracker “is linked directly to computers in the store, and is based on actual store operations. When the pizza is made and put in the oven, the store team member must press a button, which updates Domino’s Tracker. The same goes for when the pizza goes out on delivery.”

(Domino’s actually holds a patent on the systems and technologies that drive the Pizza Tracker, if you want to go down the rabbit hole on this). 

dominos patent

Source: Google Patents


3. Removing friction to ordering: Domino’s Anyware

In 2016, Dominos created a zero-click delivery app. It made ordering incredibly easy (maybe too easy) for Domino's customers. 

When you open the app, a 10-second countdown starts. When it gets to zero, your saved “Easy Order” will automatically get placed at the location of your choice. 

dominos app

Source: Google Play

The brand didn’t stop there — they created program after program that made it dead simple to order a pizza: 

  • In 2015, Domino’s made it possible to order a pizza with a emoji on Twitter. 
twitter dominos
  •  Domino’s Anyware makes it possible to order pizzas with text, Google Home, Alexa, Slack, Facebook Messenger, a wearable, and more.

Source: Dominos

As of 2022, more than 90% of Domino’s sales were made online — through their app, website, and Domino’s Anyware program. In 2018 Domino’s even claimed to be one of the top 5 biggest eCommerce retailers in the world (alongside brands like Amazon and Apple).

Why does making it easy for users to do something drive their behavior? It’s down to a psychological and usability concept called friction. 


What is Friction?

Friction describes the barriers that stand between a customer and their goals. It might be asking a user to think too much, overloading the amount of information their brains can handle (Cognitive Load). It might be asking customers to make a complex choice from too many options, resulting in Choice Overload.

Regardless of the source, friction makes it harder for people to get what they want.


4. Paving for Pizza

Even after it improved the quality of its pizza, Domino’s ran into other challenges. Their new products would leave the store looking delicious, but by the time they go to customers, they looked something like this: 

nasty pizza

Source: Reddit via u/Your_FriendlyKaiser

Domino’s figured out that many of its product complaints were related to its drivers hitting potholes while delivering pizza. So they figured out a creative solution that benefitted not only them but their community as well.

Truck and road crews soon hit the road, emblazoned with the slogan, “Bad roads shouldn’t happen to good pizza.” Funded by Domino’s, these teams began fixing potholes on streets frequented by its delivery drivers.

dominos potholes

Source: Dominos

The Bottom Line

In the United States alone, Domino’s sells over 1.5 million delicious pizzas a day. They’re an unstoppable juggernaut and one of the world’s best-known brands. At one stage in 2020, Domino’s stock had even yielded a higher return than Google since the company’s IPOs. 

If you want to improve your brand like Dominos, start by asking yourself: 

  • What do customers really think of us? Should we own up to our failings using the Pratfall Effect?
  • Do we show customers what’s going on behind the scenes? Are we leveraging Operational Transparency and making sure customers know exactly where their product is and how long it will take to get to them? Is it clear where they are in their customer experience and what’s coming next?
  • How easy is it for customers to get ahold of our product? Is there too much Friction in our process, or are we not easy to buy because our product is too hard to find online or in stores that customers already visit?


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About Jen Clinehens
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Welcome to Choice Hacking! 
My name is Jen, I'm the founder and managing director of Choice Hacking.  I've spent my career perfecting omni-channel customer experiences for brands like AT&T, McDonalds, Adidas and more using the power of behavioral science, psychology, and AI. 

Now I spend my time writing case studies and creating courses to help others supercharge their work with science.

My team and I also love helping brands solve their biggest marketing and experience challenges - if that sounds like you, please get in touch to learn more.