In the age of Instagram, food is no longer designed to just be food. It’s a set piece, a lifestyle statement of fantastical hyperbole. So we drink unicorn lattes, eat rainbow bagels, and lick our charcoal-black soft serve in front of neon signs. Food is no longer about eating. It’s about the documentation of unattainable perfection, catching the next ever-illusive meme.
Yet in this new wave of food-as-influencer, there is a single, curmudgeonly brand that insists on photographing its dishes on conference room tables, under fluorescent lighting, and from all sorts of unflattering angles. It’s a brand that looks art directed by your 65-year-old parents who bought some no-name Android smartphone, hired based upon their portfolio of blurry photos on Facebook.
“In this space, we actually are finding that less than perfect is sometimes actually perfect,” says Dennis Maloney, Domino’s chief digital officer. “A lot of customers are out photographing their food. They know, depending where you take it and the light you’re under, food looks different. It feels much more honest and transparent when the images are imperfect.”
Indeed, transparency strategy that’s been working for Domino’s since it started critiquing its own product in a 2010 reformulation and apology tour. Domino’s admitted that its food was failing taste tests and disappointing consumers, and it promised to embrace more legible ingredients. Sales at Domino’s continue to climb in the U.S. while industry-leader Pizza Hut’s drop. One forecast projects Domino’s taking Pizza Hut’s No. 1 spot by the end of the year. And though it has fewer followers than the Hut, Domino’s routinely gets more likes on Instagram and Twitter. In the world of big pizza, this unlikely approach is outmaneuvering the competition, including peers like Papa John’s and Little Caesar’s.
But let us be clear about something when it comes to Domino’s social feeds. It’s not just full of realistic photography without a food stylist on the set. It’s often downright gross bro-food, like what you might see waking up at 5 a.m. on the floor of a frat house.
We’re talking about grease-stained boxes, mozzarella cheese that has a white balance set to the color of earwax (17,000 likes).
We’re talking about garlic knots that resemble lovingly shaped micro-penises (8,500 likes).
We’re talking about congealed chicken wings sitting in a pool of lukewarm buffalo sauce (8,000 likes).
We’re talking about using a flash to photograph food (10,000 likes).
The Domino’s feed is not appetizing by any objective measure. But if you look at it long enough, over enough time, the cadence of grotesqueness begins to sink in. The studio lighting and Photoshop-enhanced pepperoni of Papa John’s and Pizza Hut start to look like the culinary equivalent of a French manicure and a spray tan. Fake.
Instead of employing professional photographers, Domino’s relies on its digital marketing team to update the social media feeds. The cinema verité approach began in 2012, when Domino’s launched the Show Us Your Pizza Campaign, and shared the (often ugly) food photos taken by its customers. After that, the aesthetic just stuck. And today, the pizzas Domino’s photographs are all real, either pulled from a test kitchen oven, or delivered by an employee, no food stylist required. And, clearly, there’s no sweating the need for natural light or perfect post-processing by Domino’s employees who will sometimes even take photographs in their own suburban homes. Domino’s is a living embodiment of a #nofilter brand.
Of course, this approach doesn’t just buck social media trends; it bucks everything established by fast food (or what the industry calls QSR) restaurants. Consider the low-angled Greek god stature with which McDonald’s has photographed its Big Macs over the years. The bun is a golden mountain. The seeds upon it are alabaster gems. And somehow, as if through consumer X-ray vision, you can even make out the pickles, beef, lettuce, and special sauce within their perfectly balanced stack. These foods have always been photographed as icons, so carefully presented that no minimum wage employee working during the lunch rush could ever live up to the promise. And yet as consumers, we continue to fall for the bait and switch again and again.
“I think that’s really what we’re looking for,” says Maloney of Domino’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to marketing its own pizzas. “They’re so real. They’re imperfectly real. It’s exactly what it looks like when you really get one.”
In theory, Domino’s will only drive more loyalty with every person who sees a deflated pile of cheese sticks on its feed and orders them in real life, because Domino’s is delivering on its promise. And in the age of the unicorn-colored influencer, when nothing we see in social media is really all that real, perhaps society is using Domino’s to self-administer its own antidote, one soggy slice at a time.
“Even if it is a little bit gooey, greasy, the packaging isn’t perfect, and there’s a bit of a burnt spot, that’s the pizza you get,” says Maloney. “And that makes you think how good it was last time you had it.”
For now, Domino’s plans to stay the course with its approach to food photography. Maloney suspects that Domino’s will soon have competitors on Grosstagram, and as implausible as that may sound in today’s influencer space, perhaps it’s true. For as much as we’re all hooked on social media, more and more, we seem to be reaching a societal tipping point of understanding that what we see online isn’t actually all that real. And for a brand that wants to connect with its customers in an earnest way? Maybe admitting that is the first step.