There are 4 Marketing Strategy lessons that can be learned from the class actions suit certified against Papa John's Pizza. Weidert GroupPapa John’s may have Better Ingredients. And Better Pizza. But after the news that broke last week, they would be well served to have a better legal team as well.

A week ago, a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle certified a class action lawsuit against Papa John’s International Inc. for up to $250 million in statutory damages for the alleged uninvited transmission of 500,000 text messages to consumers.

The suit contends that eight Papa John’s franchisees operating restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, working with marketing services provider OnTime4U, violated the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act by sending consumers unsolicited advertising and promotional messages via phone calls and text messages. The franchisees joined Papa John’s and OnTime4U as co-defendants in the suit.

It gets worse!

If a jury decides that Papa John’s willfully violated the law, they could award triple damages! At $750 million, that would be a smoking $1,500 per text message for promotions that probably cost less than a penny per to send. Ouch!

Aside from the very obvious legal lessons all parties involved will have tattooed on their brains by the time this case is resolved, what marketing strategy lessons should the rest of us take away?

  1. We live in a permission-required age. Push stuff on people at your own peril. In most situations, where the law doesn’t protect, people just turn you off, switch channels, or throw your message away. We should all be thinking about how to attract the interest and invitations of customers to have a conversation, instead of looking for ways to cram more messages down their throats. Sounds like a take-away from the election too, doesn’t it?
  2. Be a good citizen, or the brand pays the price. While the potential damages could be enormously costly, equally damaging whether Papa John’s wins or loses is the damage to the brand and consumer confidence. Papa John’s is spending a fortune as a major NFL sponsor this season; do they continue promoting with Peyton Manning while they’re on the front page, and risk losing momentum?
  3. When you have more to lose than marketing partners, do your own due diligence. Apparently, OnTime4U worked directly for the franchisees without Papa John’s oversight, and provided assurances to the franchisees that because the cell phone numbers were mined from their own point-of-sale systems of calls previously made to them, they had an existing business relationship that exempts them from consumer protection laws.
  4. Never stop listening to your customers. Does anyone today wish they got more unsolicited e-mail? How many of us spend time every day or week unsubscribing some of the junk that just keeps coming from people and businesses we never heard of? So how could an industry giant like Papa John’s, with so much to lose, not stop to ask their customers “Hey, do you mind if we promote our products this way?” I’m guessing they wouldn’t have to go very far with that line of questioning to get a clear message.

So what’s the big lesson here? For me, seeing the carnage of a blunder this size reinforces the idea that while being the first to do something in a big way might be exciting, I would rather be the second penguin in the water. All too often, the first one in is someone’s dinner!

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