If anyone embodies the Domino's corporate cheer, all about selling more pizza and having more fun, it would seem to be Ramon De Leon, a prominent but unsanctioned ambassador for the company.
Having started 25 years ago as a delivery driver, De Leon now directs marketing for six franchises in Chicago. From this modest platform, with plenty of enthusiasm but no authorization to speak widely for Domino's as a brand, he has risen to prominence in the burgeoning profession of social media management.
He's a sought-after speaker in the marketing world, traveling to conferences around the globe. In June, the Chicago Social Media Marketing Group named De Leon, 44, Chicago Social Media Person of the Year.
He's not the only social media maven out there, of course. But his story shows what one guy can accomplish with a little technology and a knack for the voice of new media.
"I cannot make money selling pizzas for $1, but I can make money off the conversation it generates," he said, a reference to giveaway stunts that get people talking about Domino's on social media.
"(De Leon's) doing a lot of things right, and it's cool to see that," said David Armano, executive vice president of global innovation and integration at public relations firm Edelman in Chicago. "He's a great little case study."
But there are no cheers coming from Domino's headquarters. Domino's Pizza Inc. asked that De Leon remove its ticker symbol, DPZ, from his original Twitter handle. He now uses simply @Ramon_DeLeon. The company's response to inquiries about him is frosty.
"(De Leon) is a creative, colorful, energetic individual," said Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications for corporate Domino's. "He is not, however, an employee of Domino's Pizza Inc., and he does not represent the company or our global brand."
De Leon's boss is franchisee Jim Fisher, 58, who said that when it comes to social media, he trusts De Leon to do his own thing.
"I guess I'm old school," Fisher said. "There's stuff I don't know about. … For me, I love (De Leon's marketing) because it's one less thing I have to think about."
Fisher said revenue has improved each of the 18 years his Fisher Pizza Inc. has been in business in this competitive pizza town. He attributes much of his recent success to De Leon's marketing.
The results of online marketing are measured by metrics such as the number of video page views or tweets, sales and customer feedback through social media conversations. Armano said De Leon's approach covers all these bases.
"All of De Leon's content on the Web gets tracked by Google," Armano said. "That's typically things businesses would pay for. This way, it's free."
Armano said tracking social noise and sales is difficult, but positive word-of-mouth eventually leads to revenue.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know the reputation of your company directly impacts your shareholder value," he said.
De Leon's aggressive branding has ruffled feathers at corporate Domino's.
"We've gotten in trouble with people thinking we're Domino's Pizza Inc. or the face of Chicago," Fisher said. "Domino's thinks we're trying to be more than we are. We never did it to start with, but it was a perception. We're only six little stores. We don't handle Chicagoland."
De Leon was not as effective on the operations side of the business. In July 2010, Fisher said, he removed De Leon from his 10-year role as supervisor of his six stores. He gave him the title of marketing director for all six stores and general manager of the Canal Street location. Fisher said his decision came after his stores performed poorly on corporate Domino's unannounced semiannual evaluations.
Fisher said the stores were not equipped to handle a high volume of orders nor staffed with enough labor to maintain them.
"We were just too busy trying to get pizzas out the doors and delivered," Fisher said.
Since then, Fisher has resumed supervision of his stores, increased daily labor by 3 to 4 percent and "done things and continued to do things to handle our volume," including instituting his own schedule of surprise evaluations.
"I think I've gotten out of (corporate Domino's) bad graces," Fisher said. "And I don't know if I was ever in their good graces."
The Domino's Franchisee Association, based in Schertz, Texas, declined to comment on franchisees' relationships with the corporate office.
Starting with an apology
De Leon continues to draw notice for seeing opportunity in each new media development that comes along. And a mere quick Tweet by him can get people talking about pepperoni pies and chocolate lava cakes.
"Every time a tweet (from De Leon) pops up, even if he's talking about the weather, it does get people thinking about pizza," said Amy Ravit Korin, Chicago's Google Places community manager and founder of Interactive Amy, a social media and digital publicity consultancy.
Korin met De Leon in April 2009 after she and her husband ordered two Domino's pizzas on a rainy night. The pizzas arrived a full hour later, both cold, and one with the wrong toppings.
Korin tweeted her complaints, and De Leon responded in kind. He filmed a video apology with Korin's pizza deliveryman, saying, "We dropped the ball … but Amy, let me tell you, I got your back … allow us the opportunity to flip this and really wow you with our service."
In 2009, a business admitting fault and apologizing to a customer via social media was a jaw-dropper, Korin said.
"My chin hit the floor," she said. "I couldn't believe he went above and beyond for a $20 order. I had never seen anything like this come through social media channels before."
That video went viral — now topping 1 million views — and put De Leon on the social media map.
"He really was a pioneer in this (social media) space, and he's kept it up because he's genuine," Korin said. "You can't fake this kind of enthusiasm."
Rodney Rumford, co-founder of TweetPhoto and founder of Gravity Summit, which teaches businesses how to use social media, gave De Leon his first speaking opportunity because he was "fascinated by the innovative way he was using social media for Domino's."
"I was really excited to see someone who was involved in a retail food chain using this in a way that was very engaging," Rumford said. De Leon got the conversational tone right, he said, while others on social media were pushing product rather than creating banter.
And thus began De Leon's roadshow, which, he said, includes an average of eight speaking engagements per year. De Leon has presented his social media strategy at the BlogWorld and New Media Expo in Los Angeles; Gravity Summit at Harvard University, which was streamed at CNN.com; and a number of other events worldwide, including one in Vienna. He is preparing for conferences in Hamburg, Germany; Paris; and Melbourne, Australia.
"To see him onstage, he's probably one of the most dynamic and energetic presenters that causes people to think, and in an approachable way," Rumford said.
De Leon uses the hashtag #RamonWOW to catalog his tweets. Domino's customers and De Leon's followers, in turn, tweet about him or his pizza and include the hashtag, a way to flag De Leon and draw him into the conversation.
"He is not identified as Domino's Pizza," Korin said. "He's branded as an individual. He is his brand."
De Leon tops his pizza boxes with fliers that include recent tweets from his customers, so "they can see their name in lights," Fisher said. He has been known to drive around the city delivering free pizzas to followers who tweet him during a given time period.
Domino's now offers its Pizza Tracker companywide so that when customers order pizza online, they can monitor the status of their order, seeing when it goes into the oven and heads out for delivery. But that was years off in 1998, when online ordering was in its infancy.
"I thought, 'You can order a book online, why can't you order a pizza?'" De Leon recounted.
That August, Fisher's Domino's stores, along with a few other franchises across the country, launched online ordering through a third-party vendor. They beat corporate Domino's to the punch by seven years, because the company was building its own system. Today, Fisher said that, on average, more than 60 percent of the business at his four lakefront stores (Wrigleyville, Lincoln Park and North and South Loop) comes from Internet orders.
But De Leon noticed that online customers lost out on personal interaction. He started instant messaging them "to bring the conversation back," De Leon said. "This laid the groundwork to later master the online engagement of Twitter."
De Leon was also an early arrival to Facebook, a natural channel to reach a young, pizza-loving demographic. In 2005, with help from a student — Facebook was then still for college students only — De Leon created the group "Domino's is Better than Papa John's." He gave students Domino's pizza photos to share on Facebook and encouraged them to take pictures of their own Domino's experiences to post on their accounts.
It seems humdrum now, but then, "brands and Facebook had still not figured out how a company could advertise on Facebook," De Leon said.
This was five years before corporate Domino's unveiled its "Our Pizza Sucks" campaign, in late 2009, which included advertisements that candidly highlighted customers' angry Twitter messages and feedback from focus groups to contrast with its new and improved pizzas.
A connector from the get-go
De Leon began learning business strategy at 7 years old, dragging Avon beauty supplies door to door in his Bucktown neighborhood with his mother, Natalia De Leon. He said he used to stare at his mother, wondering what her lengthy chats with customers had to do with selling Avon. Then she'd leave with a sale, and it all became clear.
"I would think, 'Why not just hand them a catalog and move to the next door?'" De Leon said. "It was so mundane, but she was getting them to know, like and trust her."
At Lane Tech High School in 1981, his fellow students needed batteries to power their newfound obsession with boomboxes. De Leon said he bought out his locker partner and turned the space into a retail base for "dealing batteries."
De Leon dropped out of the University of Illinois at Chicago after his first year because his economics professor "scared (him) about the true cost of education." De Leon thought he could reach his career goals without getting into so much debt.
"You have to trust your instincts," De Leon said. "When you can't trust yourself, you become your own worst enemy."
De Leon's reach, with his all-hours stream of social media communication and newer efforts in using geolocation, quick-response codes and video blogging, comes at a price.
"There's definitely not an off switch, and to do (social media) successfully there can't be," Korin said.
"He's always working," said De Leon's wife of 14 years, Martha. "He's a workaholic, but I know it's his passion."
De Leon said his "chill time" is sitting at the dinner table in Jefferson Park with Martha and their two children, Roberto, 13, and Oscar, 11. Everyone turns off their electronics, and they catch up with each other.
"But it's a challenge because you're used to this constant flow of information," De Leon said, adding that he is getting his wife and children into blogging. "It's almost ingrained in our lifestyle now."
He declined to comment on any aspirations beyond the pizza business but said writing a book on his social media strategies "is absolutely inevitable."
TweetPhoto's Rumford said De Leon's success relies on an ability he can apply more broadly: the instinct for connecting people.
"He'll remember talking to someone who did X and someone else doing Y, and he'll say, 'If X and Y get together, they can make Z,'" Rumford said. "He's just very insightful. The world is his oyster."
Ramon De Leon, social media speaker; marketing director for six Domino's Pizza stores in Chicago
Ask him his title and he might say: "Pizza King of Social Media," "Social Media Visionary" or "A Pizza Guy Who Gets It."
Twitter handle: @Ramon_DeLeon, or find his conversations using the hashtag #RamonWOW.
Franchise locations: De Leon represents Domino's stores at 4039 W. 26th St.; 1234 S. Canal St.; 143 W. Division St.; 2231 N. Lincoln Ave.; 3103 N. Clark St.; and 2455 W. Fullerton Ave.
De Leon's workstation: Two PC laptops, two cellphones (a Verizon Droid and a Verizon HTC Thunderbolt) and one iPad to "float through Twitter." He is always equipped with two Flip Video camcorders for on-the-go, "raw" videos because, he said, "People will watch 30 seconds of nonsense."
People he admires: His mother, Natalia De Leon, and stepfather, Candelario Vasquez. Also, Russell Hencinski, his high school science teacher. "He mentored me and really helped and taught me how to think. Every day at school I wanted to impress him as if he were my father, letting him know he was not wasting his time on me."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times