Is branding really a drug?

It is interesting to see Wetherspoons Tim Martin talking about the demise of Jamie’s Italian as the seduction of branding. As chairman of the UK’s number one pub brand, as awarded by the World Branding Awards last year, one would of thought he was a keen advocate, albeit Wetherspoons do seem to take great delight in stating they are not a brand and each individual outlet is an entity in its own right, I feel the YouGov data relating to ‘Spoons kind of undercuts all that, as the great British public do indeed see ‘Spoons as collective brand. One nurtured over time and preserved via strict policing of values and delivery details.


Tim Martin would have people believe branding is some kind of spell that you cast over customers which wears off after a while – but in the real world, it’s far more complicated. The hospitality industry is super difficult and any venue, regardless of how good or how expensive its food is, will likely fail inside two years without major investment in branding and marketing. This is true whether it’s backed by a newly crowned TV chef or a hipster pop-up going permanent. Jamie Oliver’s casual dining brands were as much an experience for customers as they were for staff, mostly to the good and but were born from and reflective of an earlier, predelivery time.


But trends move on and brands have to keep up with their audiences’ changing expectations. It’s a very competitive place, and consumers buy into experience. Nando’s and Wagamama have invested in their brand and the customer experience once in branch, providing digital experiences that can speed up the ordering, remove the risk of customer service slip ups, and allow customers to pay without all that awkward signing for the bill.


This last point is really important and where detractors like Tim Martin miss the very thing they are actually doing, Wetherspoons focuses on the customer experience that is branding. Its way too simplistic to think branding stops at a logo and a colourful menu. Hospitality brands are built from the customer experience outwards. 


Meanwhile, it’s also important to remember that ownership models have also changed, and this will have had an impact on the fate of Jamie’s Italian. His investors brought in venture capitalists to expand, and the model became detached from its origins. Running for new profit targets ended up undermining the very essence of a brand identity that both customers and staff had bought into.


So, it’s bonkers to suggest it’s not about brand. In fact, no matter what Tim Martin now claims, Wetherspoon’s itself is a brand built extremely carefully in a singular vision. And while it may be easy to poke fun at Jamie Oliver, it’s important to remember that he is someone who guided his organisation and invested heavily in training and motivating lots of youngsters who would have been unlikely to enter the industry through normal channels. Along the way, he got vast swaths of the general population to cook their own food. None of these things are bad.


It isn’t only about product or only about brand – it always has to be both. The brands that continue to thrive in this challenging market are the ones delivering both, great food and great experiences. The issue for so many stars of the zeitgeist, not just Jamie’s, is that tastes and fashion clear move at a pace. Your business, the brand, needs to be engineered to adapt and move on. Without the investment to do this the outlets were destined to fail in time, which they duly did.