Even Jamie Oliver isn’t immune to changing consumer trends
To many it was a surprise that Jamie Oliver’s restaurant chain went into administration this week. But if you look at all the trends in this sector, it was, unfortunately, not surprising.
When Jamie’s Italian launched in 2008 it immediately had a buzz, benefiting immensely from the overarching world famous Jamie Oliver brand, and also the favourable economic climate. It had a story, a popular celebrity face, was culinary on-trend, and felt fresh and modern. The sit down, semi-formal environment, with good quality food at ‘affordable’ prices was a good formula.
But brand buzz doesn’t last forever. Especially in the brutal climate that high street casual dining finds itself in. The hugely increased rates and rents, rises in employment cost, and general consumer conservatism has led to an overall casual dining downturn.
From Prezzo to Strada, Byron to Carluccios, and now Jamie’s Italian, it’s the higher end of the casual dining chain market that has been hit the hardest. The sit down, order from a proper menu, more formal side of going out to eat, is becoming less popular. Consumer trends are moving the other way, to the more informal, more flexible, faster and slightly cheaper end.
But there was also the brand relevance challenge for Jamie’s Italian. The brand buzz it had at launch has faded. For all the brilliant things that Jamie Oliver has achieved in his remarkable career, perhaps he isn’t the draw he once was. And perhaps the general idea and excitement of certain celebrity chef restaurants and brands has been watered down by growing retail empires that spread themselves too thin and become a little meaningless.
Long gone is the idea that the chef is actually in the kitchen cooking food. It’s perhaps ironic that the familiarity of having a Jamie’s Italian on every high street may well have helped to take some of the excitement out of the overarching Jamie Oliver brand, on which Jamie’s Italian relied. The human side of the brand that people loved was lost.
Perhaps it’s telling that the three Jamie’s Italian restaurants that are remaining open are all in Gatwick Airport – a place where holiday bound people are willing to pay extra, happy to sit for an hour, and perhaps international tourists are more hungry for a piece of brand Jamie Oliver.
Other trends seem have worked against Jamie’s Italian. More than ever, casual dining consumers are after experiences more than just a sit-down formal meal. Something that’s ripe for sharing on Instagram. Something that has brand buzz, and something that matches the trend for informality, flexibility and value.
US brand Five Guys is creating waves in this sector. Having taken the US by storm, their 90-odd UK stores are booming. They have a fresh and relevant story, high quality ingredients, the right balance of informality, and a value position that the likes of Jamie’s Italian or Carluccios can’t compete with. They also seem to understand exactly what it is that makes them special, and despite their rapid growth, have been able to maintain this. It’s the kind of experience that people want to tell others they’ve had.
It’s perhaps easier to be relevant when you’re new to the market, but there are brands that seem to be able to evolve with the trends and keep consumers coming back for more. Wagamama are the big success story of the premium end of the casual dining sector, outperforming the market by eight per cent over the last three years. They manage to stay fresh and relevant by always evolving and innovating.
As well as taking Asian food mainstream, they pioneered table sharing, they embraced the informality of dishes coming at different times, and they’ve utilised tech throughout their business. Wagamama restaurants have always felt modern and Instagramable, and they’ve cleverly continued to evolve their menu, starting simple, and then bringing people on a journey to different types of pan-Asian foods.
Through their innovation and constant evolution, they’ve managed to keep their brand fresh and relevant, and kept pace with changing consumer trends.
So aside from the enormously challenging retail environment that casual dining companies face, what lessons can be learnt from the fall of Jamie Oliver’s high street brand?
I think the biggest learning is that to survive today, most brands need to evolve and keep up to date with consumer trends. They need to stay relevant. Brand buzz that’s generated by celebrity or nostalgia doesn’t last forever. It fades. And you need to find ways to top it up.
There’s also the issue of brands losing what made them special. Everyone loved Jamie Oliver for his passion and his personality – his human side. But when a business turns into an empire, it’s difficult to keep this humanity real. Consumers see through it, and unfortunately, they stop buying it.
Jamie Williams is managing partner at Isobel