The Brand is Not Enough

You may remember that back in May Jamie Oliver’s restaurant chain – Jamie’s Italian – went into administration, putting over 1,000 jobs at risk. I was reminded of that this week when I saw that, little more than two months later, Master Oliver has moved into a new £6m mansion

I’ll leave you to judge what his former employees may think of that…

At the time the restaurants went into administration I read an article quoting Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin. His message was blunt and uncompromising: many of the casual dining sector’s recent failures had “thought they were so groovy the brand would do the work for them.” 

He added, “I think a lot of the casual dining sector and some of the pub companies [were] seduced by the drug of branding. Jamie Oliver was the ultimate brand [but] there were some others out there as well. It’s not about a brand, as someone told me 30 or 40 years ago. If you run a pub or restaurant it’s a trade and you have to develop the individual aspects of the business as time goes along.” 

Unquestionably the casual dining sector was (and remains) very, very competitive – we’ve all eaten at Strada, Prezzo and Byron and they’ve all had to close sites – but I have a lot of time for Tim Martin’s view. 

Yes, we’re all creating a brand but, increasingly, the brand is not enough. Nowhere near enough. 

Look at the wreckage of the UK high street. June was a washout, with total sales decreasing by 1.3%. Boots is planning to close 200 stores in the next 18 months, M&S is undoubtedly considering a similar list and it is widely forecast that online sales will overtake retail some time in the next decade.  

Boots and M&S were two of the best known names and most-respected brands in the country. But however good your brand is, however well-known your name is, two facts are inescapable. 

The world is changing. Yes, I’ve written that a hundred times – but it bears repeating. 

What happened on July 5th1994

Amazon was founded: just 25 years ago and it has made Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world and helped to create thousands of businesses – but it has done lasting and irreversible damage to the UK high street and shopping malls across America.

Secondly, the world is far more competitive than it ever was and customer loyalty is fast disappearing – if it hasn’t gone already. 

…Which takes me back to Tim Martin. “We’re not a brand,” he says. “We’re only as good as our next pint.” Quite right: as he says, if you follow that philosophy you won’t get everything right but you’ll start to get a few things right. 

Let me give you another example. No company – historically – has relied on the ‘power of the brand’ more than Kraft Heinz. Heinz itself, TGI Fridays, Philadelphia, Maxwell House, Lea & Perrins… The list is endless. 

But when Kraft Heinz reported its Q4 earnings recently, it lost more than $16bn (around £12.5bn) in market value, despite its backers (including Warren Buffet) succeeding in cutting $15bn in costs. Why? Because the big brands are falling out of favour. Because Google searches for terms in the vegan, low-sugar and low-carb categories respectively increased by 64%, 36% and 18% year on year for the 12 months ending in April 2018. 

Because – as I wrote above – the world is changing and becoming more competitive. Most of us will now pay a little bit more for our tomato ketchup, cheese and coffee if we know where it has come from and we know it is ethically sourced. 

So what about the Alternative Board UK? Are we, to use Tim Martin’s phrase, ‘only as good as our last pint?’ 

I think the answer to that is yes. We are far from the only peer coaching organisation in the UK. I believe passionately that we are the best by some distance – but I am very conscious that we can never let our standards slip. That we must consistently deliver to our members and that we at head office must consistently deliver to our franchisees. 

Yes, it’s my job as the MD to see the big picture. It’s also my job to make sure that excellence is consistently – and remorselessly – delivered: that the next pint is even better than the last one…

(One footnote – actually, one still quite sore footnote… A very big ‘thank you’ to everyone who supported us last weekend on our Three Peaks Challenge. All of us at head office were hugely grateful for all the support we received. The full report will be in the next blog…)

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