NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Sometimes a megabrand trying to pitch a fresh image to consumers has to travel back in time to remind people why they fell in love with the brand in the first place.
That pretty much sums up what executives at Yum! Brands' (YUM - Get Report) Pizza Hut have cooked up to drive interest in the pizza chain's new menu, which launched this past November, and revive U.S. sales. Sales for Pizza Hut in the U.S. were sluggish for most of last year as competitors Domino's Pizza (DPZ - Get Report) and Papa John's (PZZA - Get Report) continued to capitalize on the trend toward online ordering while also dishing out well-received promotions.
The fourth quarter brought a glimmer of hope for Pizza Hut, however. Pizza Hut's U.S. business, which represents roughly 60% of the chain's 13,000 plus total units, delivered a 2% "system sales" increase, excluding currency adjustment, during the quarter. That followed three straight quarterly declines. The Pizza Hut division represented about 8.6% of Yum! Brands' 2014 revenue.
The source of inspiration for Pizza Hut's latest marketing campaign is its classic stuffed crust pizza, which was first introduced in March 1995, and had then NBA superstar David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs as its pitchman (seen in the original spot below).
On Monday, Pizza Hut announced that it will hold a live event at Butler University's Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on April 5 where four fans will attempt a backward half-court shot to win $1 million. Everyone in attendance (at what inevitably will turn into a social media spectacle) will be able try all of Pizza Hut's new stuffed crust flavors, which will number 10 in total, including honey sriracha and salted pretzel.
If a contestant pulls off the seemingly impossible basketball shot, Pizza Hut will offer half off all stuffed crust pizza orders across the country on April 9. So instead of paying $9.99 to eat a pizza backward to ingest its gooey cheese, consumers will pay only $4.99.
The event coincides with a new television ad featuring the now retired David Robinson and broadcasting legend Dick Vitale. For a limited time, Pizza Hut is offering the pie at the same price as in 1995, a reasonable $9.99, before it returns to a normal price of $11.99. The renewed promotion also comes as the fast food environment is similar to the one in 1995. Namely, everyone is in love with hamburgers. The main difference is that back then the nation was scoffing up burgers because low beef prices made them cheap. Today they're popular because of the proliferation of better burger chains such as Shake Shack (SHAK) and Five Guys.
At the time, Pizza Hut described its stuffed crust pizza invention as "revolutionary." It certainly has paid dividends to the pizza chain 20 years later.
According to Pizza Hut representative Courtney Moscovic, stuffed crust pizza has become a multibillion-dollar business for Pizza Hut since its launch in 1995. And in its first year alone, it tallied $300 million in sales. By 2013, Pizza Hut estimated stuffed crust pizza represented about 10% of the chain's annual sales.
Pizza Hut's channeling a bit of nostalgia comes on the heels of disappointing global sales for the chain in the fourth quarter. Same-restaurant sales at Pizza Hut were unchanged, vs. Wall Street's estimates of a 0.3% increase.
But there were signs diners in the U.S. were open to trying out the new-look Pizza Hut menu, which consists of 10 new crust options, five new toppings, six new sauces, four new "drizzles" and 11 specialty pies. According to Yum! Brands, 90% of Pizza Hut customers who tried the new menu items planned to reorder them in the future, suggesting sluggish sales in the quarter may have been confined to older areas of the Pizza Hut menu.
Clearer marketing was also an issue that Yum! Brands CEO Greg Creed acknowledged and is seeking to change quickly. "We struggled to get our communications balanced to build the new brand positioning while still connecting with our core customer," said Creed. He also said the company is focused on "more targeted product news, promotional offers and marketing communications."