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Tales from Hell: How a strategy can keep the grim reaper from calling

By HGB , Jul 21 2017
Recapping General Manager Hell Revolution Ben Cummings’ presentation on strategy from the NZ Marketing Summit 2017

Taking the stage in the slot before lunch and talking about pizza was a bad combo to keep a foodie like me attentive. But the disruptive tale of a business that has been built upon lessons learnt from experiences and mistakes, rather than qualifications, by an in-house team kept me interested.

I knew Hell had been around for a while, but I didn’t realise this iconic New Zealand pizza brand was celebrating its 21st birthday. Fair to say, there has been some major change through this period!

In the early days, Hell dropped 170,000 condoms into letterboxes – one of the brand’s most controversial campaigns. Their goal? Recognition. Hell wanted to get in front of people at whatever cost. The gain was people trying their product, and this far outweighed those who were offended.

hgb blog condom hells pizza

Hell have built a legacy around being risky, but they have now combined this with clear thinking and strategy.

In 2006, with 66 stores selling pizza around the country, Hell sold to Burger King. Three years later, recession hit, sales were down and franchisees were in revolt. The shock marketing was working in reverse. Hell’s marketing approach had no real purpose and the public was reacting badly to the poor taste campaigns, resulting in campaign after campaign being pulled.


HGB blog skeleton

The data showed that each campaign spiked an increase in purchases, but the spikes were getting less. Hell were now alienating more than they were winning.

In 2009, Hell’s founder bought his company back and the resurrection of this iconic New Zealand brand began. Reinstating the old team, the focus was on clearing out the trash. People, brand and stores were reborn in an attempt to get back to basics.

Investing in consumer research, Hell discovered that brand was far clearer in people’s minds than the product. All the efforts to get attention weren’t driving product awareness.

Hell 2.0

Hell had a chance to resurrect themselves and the team embraced the opportunity with open arms. First and foremost was establishing a marketing strategy that stayed true to the brand’s edgy persona but gave every campaign a clear purpose.

Priorities were:

  1. Aligning Hell products closely with the brand
  2. Creating campaigns that said what others were thinking (versus setting out to offend people)


hgb blog hell no

Playing devil’s advocate, Hell have been able to create general discussion. An Easter campaign resulted in a battle between religious fanatics (calling for blood) and those who supported it, even the church! The complainers became the unreasonable ones.

A follow up campaign saw a single billboard placed in Auckland, made up of rabbit skins. While the hard core vegans were up in arms, others defended the piece with the feeling that rabbits are a pest in New Zealand and as such this was a sustainable, ethical piece. While people waged in the war, Hell sat back and let the brand take the spotlight – this time, in the right way.

The result? Hell’s BIGGEST week ever without the slump of the previously pointless campaigns.

hgb blog rabbit hells pizza

Don’t get crucified

Hell realised that if they went looking for controversy and risk, they would often fall flat. If they sat around the boardroom table to think ‘edgy’ it wouldn’t come. Now, Hell constantly keep an eye out for opportunities.

They have also developed a substantial insurance policy, by building up good will around the brand. There are also good bones around the business to back it up, if they cross the line.

Like many New Zealand companies, Hell gives back to our community but they weren’t sharing these stories. Satan’s Little Helper is Hell’s community initiative, where people can nominate others who are ‘going through hell’. Help or goodwill will be given by way of a small gesture, such as a fun day out.

Hell also became involved in sponsoring the Children’s Book Awards, although they did have to defend themselves on TV as sceptics were up in arms that a terrible brand had come on board!

Hell have found it has taken time to prove they are genuine. Instead of focusing on mainstream causes, Hell have chosen to make a difference. Supporting the Tourette’s Association of New Zealand and their Camp Twitch, Hell have been able to support a small Kiwi charity that they can make their mark on. This provides opportunity for the public to see the people behind the Hell brand. And yes, they are genuine people, not satanic worshippers.

To further build goodwill in the brand, Hell moved to organic product – and wore the cost of the increase. They recognised the shift in market, the rise in the conscious consumer, and wanted to take an ethical, sustainable approach to product.

What did I learn?

Have sound business ethics. Know why you do what you do and how you do it. For Hell, this came down to two key factors:

  1. Brand strategy – Hell moved from shock and awe to focus on product and playing devil’s advocate through debate, backed up with ethics
  2. Experience within the brand to know what will work.

Ben Cumming delivered an insightful talk at the New Zealand Marketing Summit 2017 and reiterated to me the importance of knowing your brand, knowing why you do what you do, and staying true to your core purpose.

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