The Seattle Mariners said they “suspended our relationship with Papa John’s,” as the company pulled its founder from its advertising and he resigned as chairman in the wake of reports he used a racial slur.
Papa John’s has featured John Schnatter in logos and TV ads.
His face was off at least some materials by late morning Friday, though the company said the details and exact timing for everything were still being worked out. The pizza chain said Friday there are no plans to change its name.
The Mariners had a deal with the chain in which if the team scored five runs, a Papa John’s pizza was half-off the next day. The team suspended that deal, as well as associated radio ads and LED signage.
Schnatter has long been the face of the brand, and Papa John’s has acknowledged in regulatory filings that its business could be hurt if Schnatter’s reputation was damaged. Papa John’s got a taste of that last year, when Schnatter stepped down as CEO after blaming disappointing pizza sales on the outcry surrounding football players kneeling during the national anthem.
This week, Papa John’s was already trying to further publicly distance itself from Schnatter after Forbes reported he used the N-word during a conference call in May. Schnatter apologized and said he would resign as chairman. That prompted the company’s stock to recover some of the losses it suffered after the report, and shares climbed another 3 percent Friday.
Schnatter remains on the board, and is still the company’s largest shareholder with nearly 30 percent of the stock.
In addition to appearing in TV ads, Schnatter’s image has been on packaging and at the center of a logo that usually was all over the company’s website.
Keith Hollingsworth, a professor with Morehouse College’s business department, said keeping Schnatter in the marketing and advertising would signal to people that the company does not have a problem with his comments, or that it doesn’t think they are a big deal.
“Five years from now, they might be able to start bringing him back. But at the moment, you have to be very decisive and show you take this very seriously,” Hollingsworth said.
Schnatter had used the slur during a media training exercise, Forbes said. When asked how he would distance himself from racist groups, Schnatter reportedly complained that Colonel Sanders never faced a backlash for using the word. Schnatter subsequently issued a statement acknowledging the use of “inappropriate and hurtful” language.
“Regardless of the context, I apologize,” the statement said.
The fallout has already included Major League Baseball indefinitely suspending a promotion with Louisville, Kentucky-based Papa John’s that offered people discounts at the pizza chain after a player hit a grand slam. The University of Louisville also said Schnatter resigned from its board of trustees, and that the school will evaluate the naming arrangement for Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Papa John’s International Inc. began operations in 1984 and had more than 5,200 locations globally. The company cannot afford to alienate customers, with sales already under pressure from rivals such as Domino’s. For the first three months of this year, Papa John’s said a key sales figure fell 5.3 percent in North America.