Pizza Hut CMO Lindsay Morgan Explains The Struggle Bus And Hacks The Menu - Exclusive Interview

Whether you're juggling work stress and dating drama, cheering for the underdog team, or trying to figure out how to get dinner on the table, we've all been on the struggle bus at some point or another. It's a ubiquitous sentiment that echoes a universal truth: Sometimes, life gets to be too much, and you need a break... and maybe a slice of pizza, too. Fortunately, Pizza Hut totally gets it, and they're here to help, with more than just a comforting slice. 

This spring, the world's second largest pizza chain (via Restaurant Business News) is hitting the road with an actual Struggle Bus, complete with all the essentials you need to relax and unwind, and plenty of free pizza – because let's be honest, that makes most things better. After rolling up in New Orleans for NCAA Final Four weekend, the Struggle Bus is headed to Athens, Georgia later this month.

That's not all that Pizza Hut has planned for customers this year. The pizza chain so many of us grew up on is making moves to keep customers coming back to the brand they know and love, even as the competition continues to grow. Pizza Hut is leaning into nostalgia while also embracing new technology and trends, making sure to deliver whether it's for a celebration, a much needed night of comfort, or quick weeknight dinner. 

For all the cheesy details on the Struggle Bus, and Pizza Hut's plans for 2022, Mashed spoke exclusively with the brand's Chief Marketing Officer, Lindsay Morgan. As an added bonus, we also got some inside tips on the ways you didn't even know you could enjoy the Hut.

How Pizza Hut is helping all of us on the Struggle Bus

I love the idea of the Struggle Bus. Talk a little about the inspiration for the struggle bus, and how this concept went from idea to reality.

The term is, "I'm riding the struggle bus," or, "On the struggle bus today," or, "Sorry, I can't get my Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts to work. I'm on the struggle bus." It's really part of Gen Z vernacular, and I guess Gen X as well. People use that as a common term, and we thought, "What a really interesting thing that no one's really co-opted." 

Being on the struggle bus can mean lots of different things. Whether it's your team has lost at Final Four and you're woeful and you need to lick your wounds and have some pizza and veg out, or you're a college student cramming for finals and you really need to make that one grade to turn your term, you could be on the struggle bus in that way. You could be in the dating landscape, which can be really tricky, and you could be on the struggle bus of the virtual dating scene. And Pizza Hut could really play a solution in any of those different pieces. 

[Maybe] your team has lost and you've had a lot of cocktails, and you're really craving some comfort food, or you're a busy college student and you're looking for an affordable meal that could be delivered or carried out for your occasion. If you're dating, it's also a great "pizza and chill" choice with a friend or girlfriend, or whatever that term could be. We could provide a solution across a range of things. It really came from customer conversation and listening to how that has really picked up, especially in the last two years, [with] a lot of changing dynamics with virtual [life] and getting back into regular life too.

What are the different features of the actual Pizza Hut Struggle Bus?

We made this bus, an actual bus, to be this immersive and Instagrammable experience, where you can come by and take a nap in one of our bed pods. It's outfitted with Pizza Hut gravity blankets, which is an activation that we did last year, outfitting a weighted gravity blanket like our heavy pan pizza. We have those in our bus. There's some gaming, we had a Pop-A-Shot out there, and a really cool, fun visual that you could put out on your social threads, or veg out. There's free pizza there as well. We've been estimating that we'll probably give out around 5,000 slices between [NCAA] Final Four and our college stop.

The Pizza Hut Struggle Bus heads from New Orleans to Athens, Georgia

What was the reception like from fans during the NCAA Final Four weekend down in New Orleans?

We had a really great response. A lot of people stopped by for a quick pic, but we even had some people come in and charge their phones, charge their bodies, take a quick nap. I think people [were] really drawn to coming by and enjoying some pizza and some swag, and stopping by the experience at Final Four. We're hoping for a similar response at our next stop.

Next, the bus is headed to Georgia. Why there?

It's a nice close stop from New Orleans, and it's a place where I think we know that the Athens, Georgia crew can be out and about. Maybe they're coming off of college sports, but also finals, and it's a place where, like New Orleans [during] Final Four, where there's a decent amount of foot traffic [and] we're hoping people will swing by and check it out. At that college stop, the Betches "U Up?" podcast taping is happening there, too. We thought that was the perfect collab for that Athens college town as well.

Can you share a little more about this partnership with Betches, and maybe what we could expect from this special struggle bus podcast episode?

Yeah, we're really excited. It's going to be a live podcast, where they'll be talking about the latest dating struggles and people can call in and get advice from Jordana [Abraham] and her co-host [Jared Freid] about what their dating struggles are. It's a fun way for people to engage with the brand, and if you're not able to stop by the Struggle Bus in person in Athens, having the Betches podcast is also a fun way for you to be a part of that experience by calling in or tuning in.

Pizza Hut plans to do more than spice things up in the near future

Are there any new menu items or promotions coming up that you can share any details about? Anything to look forward to?

We just came off of our spicy window launch. I don't know if you're a spicy lover — I am myself, my two things whenever I get a pizza, I usually pull out ranch, and I pull out fire flakes. There's a big movement on food fusion with different spicy seasonings, and Asian food and things like that have popped up, [and] even the chicken sandwich wars, where people are leaning into spicy. There's been no one really democratizing that spicy trend in the US, and so we were the first to do that. 

What was really exciting about that product is that it wasn't just the red chili peppers. It was an herb and red peppers seasoning. It was a really delicious spicy sauce. It had sliced red chili peppers. It had a little heat from our pepperoni. It was layered with a lot of different flavors, and we just finished that window for spicy lovers.

We'll have a couple new hits on innovation and some rehits on some popular fan faves. Similar to what we were talking about with customers telling us their interest in Web 3 or products that they're interested in, we had a couple hits last year that I think people can look forward to seeing [when they] return this year.

One thing that is really exciting about working on a brand like this is that I grew up with the Pizza Hut brand, too. People sometimes joke about the smell of the weekend, or these big memories, and it's such a cool experience to be able to shepherd an iconic, legendary brand that was a big part of so many people's fond memories and childhood and things like that.

What's been really exciting the last few years is that we've been bringing back a lot of those old classic hits. We did the Edge last year, and then we also had a new one, which was our Detroit style pizza, which was more of a regional trend.

The Pizza Hut menu secrets you need to know about, straight from the top

Do you have any secret Pizza Hut menu items or ordering hacks that you can share with our readers, as a Pizza Hut expert, obviously?

We actually chatted with our team members and asked them for the menu hacks, or the things that have come in from customers that are delicious. We did some buffalo chicken sliders and some other fun things like that. We actually have two more [in the works] that we'll be putting out on social media that are inspired from customers tricking out their pizzas.

What is your personal favorite?

You can do a breadstick and then order a side of boneless wings. I like the spiciest Buffalo. We have three Buffalo flavors, so [I choose] hot, and then I slice the breadsticks, and then I put the boneless wings in the breadstick. It's my own version of a spicy chicken sandwich. I like to drizzle mine with ranch, and it's very tasty, delicious. It's the perfect compliment to a Pizza Hut pizza.

That sounds amazing.

I love wings. I know wings aren't everyone's go-to side, but we have really delicious bone-in wings and boneless wings, and so they're my favorite add-on.

Pizza Hut continues to engage with customers through the longstanding BOOK IT! program

Before I let you go, I would really love to ask you about Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! program. Can you share a little bit more about this community initiative and the goals there?

One of the biggest comments I get from customers, or people when I meet them, and I say, "Oh yeah, I work at marketing at Pizza Hut," one of the top comments is, usually, "Do you still have the BOOK IT! program? Is the BOOK IT! program still around?" It's been around [since 1984]. We go through our classrooms, and it's a way to support teachers to encourage reading for students. Whenever you have read a certain number of books, you then get a free personal pan pizza.

Some of the best laugh out loud memes are around that BOOK IT! program, where we've had some people comment about how the first time they ever "treated their parents to a meal" was earning a personal pan pizza and having it being served piping hot in an actual Pizza Hut. My favorite one is a joke saying, "Clearly these people weren't a BOOK IT! kid, and it shows," making a funny implication that somebody is well read or well educated.

What has been the impact of that program around the country over the years?

The BOOK IT! Program is the nation's longest running corporate supported literacy program. It impacts more than 14 million students each year. The BOOK IT! Program offers homeschool, summer and classroom programs, as well as grants to eligible educators for books and educational resources through our nonprofit partner, First Book.

Another fun thing that we did was during COVID, [when] a lot of people were virtually learning, is that we started this thing called Camp BOOK IT!, where we made some resources available directly to parents to enroll in, rather than having to go through classrooms, because that wasn't necessarily an option for a lot of families during the pandemic.

Similar to the things we talked about with Struggle Bus, and even pizza and what people are interested in, what I love about that program is that it's such a fun thing to combine pizza and kids and reading. They've done a really special job in the last few years of pivoting, and matching customers where they are.

Follow along with Pizza Hut's newest promotion, the Struggle Bus, and more on Pizza Hut's Facebook and Instagram accounts. Tune into the special Betches "U Up?" podcast episode featuring the Pizza Hut Struggle Bus on Wednesday, May 4th.