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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Conservatives’ Pizza Problem

May 10, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Conservative policy activists have a problem. Minnesota is rejecting conservative policy prescriptions. Their policy product fails to deliver on its promise of a better life through fewer, lower taxes and a lot less government. Conservative activists are divided over the problem’s source. One side blames persuasion mechanics while the other blames tactics. Neither side believes that conservative policy might be their obstacle.

A pizza business case study, parallels the conservative policy quandary. Is the problem with the pizza or is the problem with the pizza box? Applied to conservative public policy, that roughly translates as which is failing, conservative policies or conservative messaging?

Domino’s Pizza started as a single Ypsilanti, Michigan, pizza joint called DomiNick’s. A timely purchase and renaming, combined with a desire to sell more pizza than greater Ypsilanti could consume set Domino’s on the road to national success through home-delivered pizza dominance.

Domino’s Pizza eliminated the dine-in option, a staple for many local pizza joints, focusing on producing and rapidly delivering restaurant-quality pizzas. Customer satisfaction keyed on ordering interface and speedy product delivery. But, as Domino’s eventually learned, a barely adequate product, even with outstanding delivery, can’t dominate the pizza business.

For much of its history, Domino’s understood that it produced average pizzas but, in the home-delivered pizza game, so did everyone else. As long as Domino’s delivered its adequate pizzas faster and in better, hotter condition than its competitors, low to modest quality wasn’t a concern. The pizza world, however, doesn’t stand still. The large, undifferentiated pizza business became increasingly segmented as competitors developed profitable niche sectors. Although it was a dominant industry player, Domino’s Pizza was being nibbled to death.

After closely examining customer service, delivery and marketing strategies, Domino’s Pizza realized that their adequate pizza was inadequate. The problem wasn’t their pizza box but with the pizza itself. To maintain profitability and market share, Domino’s needed a better pizza. So, they created one but that step didn’t solve their public perception problem. People assumed that “new and improved” meant “more of the same,” essentially discounting and discarding the company’s efforts. To overcome this barrier, Domino’s had to change the way that people understood Domino’s.

The campaign turned their liability into an asset. First, Domino’s “owned” their problem. Yes, they said, repeatedly, using a great deal of advertising money, we were making mediocre pizza. Now, we’ve changed; taste and see for yourself. Within their market, the strategy worked. Domino’s reversed its slide. But, what about conservative policy activists?

The conservative policy problem isn’t a simple as needing a better adequate pizza. I’m intrigued by conservative debate regarding self-perception. The choices range from tentatively suggesting moderation to doubling down on orthodoxy. Still, few conservatives doubt the appeal of limited government and no new taxes. Rather than examine policy performance metrics, conservative policy advocates continue pushing forward on faith alone.

Let’s apply the Domino’s lesson. Policy is the pizza. Good pizza satisfies the consumer just as good policy delivers widely-understood public outcomes. Law enforcement response times, library hours, road conditions and the entire host of public services color people’s perception of government success. Declining services and shifting reliance on the local property tax base to support lower effective tax rates on Minnesota’s highest income earners tends to undermine conservative policy success definitions.

That growing policy disconnect reflects fundamental policy flaws, not marketing problems. “Limited government” is increasingly revealed as limited government for some but not others. “No new taxes” means lowering state income tax while raising local property taxes. Public benefits accruing to fewer, wealthier people sit poorly with middle and low income earners.

The real problem lies with conservative public policy, not with its marketing. Delivery must match promise. Tax policy that asks more of Minnesota’s majority while returning less yet asks less of Minnesota’s top two percent of income earners while returning more is unsustainable. The problem is the pizza, not the box.

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