A sign above a Pasta Hut in London. January, 2009. Photo: Maurice Savage / Alamy Stock Photo.
Long ago, in the distant sands of time, when the universe was young and humanity was innocent – autumn 2008, I'm talking about – one company made a decision that would irrevocably alter the course of history. In one fell swoop, on the morning of the 6th of October, 2008, Pizza Hut decided to become Pasta Hut.It was a hell of a flex; like Burger King rebranding as Crumpet King. The company changed all of its restaurants to bear the name “Pasta Hut” and decided that they would be known this way forever. However, after the name was unpopular, the company reversed the decision.
Is that how you remember it? It’s how most people do. But that isn't what happened. In fact, none of that information is correct.Ever since that October morning, the Pasta Hut phenomenon has exerted a strange power over the public. People can't remember exactly what happened but they're still angry about it. Misinformation runs rife online: this person – in a discussion that manages to draw a parallel between OnlyFans and Pizza Hut – believes that Pasta Hut happened because pasta sold better than pizza in the UK; this person believes that the campaign lasted six months; this person believes that the name change was “universally rejected”. All three of them are mistaken.There is a sort of cultural amnesia about the rebrand, of people recalling it over a decade later but doubting their memory. Some seem to believe that they are the only person who remembers Pasta Hut at all. Frequently there are howls into the ether: Does anyone else remember when Pizza Hut changed its name to Pasta Hut, they ask. Does anyone else remember?
So, did Pasta Hut really happen? Yes, yes it did. Here's how...It all began not in the UK, but in the US. On the 31st of March, 2008, pizza-loving Americans got word that their beloved Pizza Hut would soon be changing its name to Pasta Hut. Why? Because “our customers have consistently told us these pastas are so good we should change our name to Pasta Hut,” said Scott Bergren, the company's then-CEO.
Though the launch didn't happen on the 1st of April itself, it didn't take a genius to smell a rat. Pasta Hut in the US – which came with its own website, newpastahut.com – was essentially an April Fool designed to draw attention to the restaurant's new “Tuscani” pastas. There are two surviving adverts for the launch: one where a Pizza Hut is demolished to make way for a Pasta Hut, and one in which the delicious pasta that LA customers are eating is revealed to have been made by Pizza Hut. The latter was so unconvincing that it warranted its own Ryan Gosling parody on Saturday Night Live. (“I ought to beat you to death,” Gosling says to the manager when the Pizza Hut reveal happens.)Despite being mocked, the stunt paid off. The ‘Tuscani’ pasta was a successful launch and “Pizza Hut's buzz increased from 22 to 27 from March to April,” said PR Week a month later. “The average buzz score for dining brands is eight.” American customers didn't care that the name change turned out to be temporary, not permanent. They thought it was fun. Ha ha. Pasta Hut.Over in the UK, Pizza Hut marketing staff met up regularly to talk about product innovations, among other things. As former chief marketing officer Hugh Wood explained to me over the phone, at the beginning of the summer of 2008 – as the company turned 50 – they would have heard how well the US experiment had fared.
With 700 restaurants and 200 to 250 delivery units in the UK in 2008, Pizza Hut was one of the biggest restaurant chains in Europe. But the brand was struggling. “It was a sort of tiring brand,” says Alasdair Murdoch, who was the chief executive at the time, “and you're trying to get a whole new audience of people in, or you're trying to get people to reconsider.”Wood says that the Pizza Hut estate – the buildings and décor – was “pretty knackered”. Competitors like Nando's, Frankie and Benny's and Pizza Express were growing quick, mainly by focusing on the dining experience. The company felt that they made good food aside from pizza, says Murdoch, “but you were never gonna get people to come to it if you said ‘Salad Hut’.” They were trying to work out how to get more female customers through the doors to try these foods, according to Murdoch – “We felt that mums, at that point in time and history, were the key influences.”So, in order to launch their better-quality pasta range, Pizza Hut UK decided to copy the US and announce that they were going to change their name to Pasta Hut. But for their TV advert, they thought that blowing up a building wasn't quite the right tone. They wanted “a celebratory rebrand” rather than a “destructive rebrand”, says Rebecca Wilson, who worked for the agency hired by Pizza Hut to mastermind the campaign.
Instead, they produced a far more low-key advert: a woman in Pizza Hut says that her pasta is so delicious that “they should change their name to Pasta Hut”.“Nice idea,” says her partner, “they'll never do it,” curtailing the carnival that had erupted outside at the mention of the new name.In the end, just ten London restaurants were actually physically rebranded to reflect the Pasta Hut campaign, and only temporarily. But this message didn’t seem clear to the British public, and confusion arose about whether every Pizza Hut would soon rebrand or it was just a joke.The media coverage was unforgiving. A piece in Campaign said that the change made “little sense to anybody” and that “marketing is about prudent, long-term objectives, not silly stunts”. Vanessa Cohen of Critical Eye said that it seemed “unlikely” the move would have a positive effect on the brand. Twitter – admittedly skewed toward misery and bitterness – seemed to bear this out, with tweet after tweet expressing bewilderment or outrage.“I think people are not getting the irony there at all,” says Murdoch. “It was a classic PR exercise.” Woods agrees: “There was never any intent for Pizza Hut to be rebranded as Pasta Hut in the UK or anywhere else,” he says. “It was supposed to be a joke, I can tell you that categorically.”In Wilson's eyes the public's confusion was a positive feature. “If that ambiguity gets people talking about it and thinking about it, then that's great,” she says. Brand Index reported an increase in “positive buzz” for Pizza Hut and that the brand's healthier approach seemed to have improved their corporate score. Murdoch is sure that the change improved sales, and Wood believes that the company got around ten to 15 times the value of the media campaign.Since 2008, customers have become far more savvy to such stunts. IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, performed the same move in 2018 when it threatened to change its name to the International House of Burgers: ‘IHOB’. Volkswagen did the very same in 2021, failing to follow through on a mooted “Voltswagen” rebrand.So what can we learn from this cautionary tale of a pizza that became a pasta only to become a pizza once again? In 2021, brands use social media in a far more arch way than they did in 2008. They frequently delight in light trolling, drenching every post in mild irony, hoping to secure coverage in and of themselves. In a way, Pasta Hut was way ahead of its time. And, if people are still talking about it 13 years later – even if it's mainly to scoff – then perhaps it succeeded exactly as it intended. Is the joke on us, or on Pasta Hut? Maybe, just maybe, it's on us.@OhHiRalphJones