Five lessons from Wetherspoon’s results and Byron Sharp

Byron Sharp’s principles (and Wetherspoon’s) are not for everyone but what can other operators learn from the pub business in the context of Byron Sharp?

Mat Sloan

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November 14, 2017

It’s tough out there, but not all operators are experiencing the same fate in the face of strong sector headwinds. Take JD Wetherspoon, for example, and its results published this week. Wetherspoon is a brand that everyone has an opinion on. Many will think “Wetherspoon – it’s not a brand I care for or for people like me” and might scroll on. Loved by some yet loathed and looked down on by others it’s a brand I have always been impressed by. 

Our research shows consumers increasingly love it and I believe much can be learned from the principles it uses. Morar HPI’s BrandVue data, for example, reveals more than half of people in the UK have visited one in the past 12 months and while there may be 893 sites across the UK it has an impressive cross social class cross age pull, varying by daypart. 

On to brand expert and author Byron Sharp. I have for a long time strongly advocated his work around “how brands grow”, which challenges a lot of conventional marketing “truths”, and in my view this is increasingly explaining how the sector performance is “falling out” in 2017 and will continue to. What can other operators learn from Wetherspoon in the context of Byron Sharp?

1. Ensure the brand is easy to buy: Put simply, be everywhere (Sharp refers to this as “physical” and “mental” availability) to increase the likelihood you’ll be considered in the moment. Ubiquity, while to smaller brands may not seem desirable (“it’s a big brand thing”), is I believe, explaining a lot of the success that the technology giants Amazon, Facebook and Google enjoy. Wherever you are, they are, so you are more likely to use them because they are front of mind. 

2. Continuously reach all buyers of the category: Customers’ attention in 2017 is a scare resource, so use it well. Wetherspoon’s communications (A-boards, posters, website) may appear quite simple, but the subtle point/lesson is it is clear to see how it could fit in guests’ lives. I’m focusing more here on the physical locations, which are typically prominent in towns and cities, rather than a killer digital strategy. Be it daypart specials, meal deals or simply new ales on promotion, there is a deliberate emphasis on drawing passers by in throughout the day. This to me is more than simply price – it’s so called “occasion marketing”. We are bombarded with up to 370 advertising messages a day so removing the cognitive load helps drive action. As a slight side note Wetherspoon has interestingly made it clear it will no longer keep a digital customer database, but I think it is a “brand of one” on this one and this isn’t a principle others should adopt! 

3. Get noticed: This may seem similar to the first lesson, but Wetherspoon (and Tim) is never afraid to have an opinion or be different. This humanises the brand to a degree and makes it distinctive. It also makes a big deal around how clean its toilets are (which no other brand does)! The lesson here is stand for what you believe in or risk standing for nothing. 

4. Imitate and innovate flawlessly: Keep the brand interesting! From the launch of pizza (earlier in November) to the launch of the pay at the table app (that I have used quite a few times and not only has it worked every time, it’s solving a few genuine customer needs and pain points), Wetherspoon does not jump on every so-called trend, rather it selectively updates in ways it can execute flawlessly. 

5. Be consistent: Sharp advocates avoiding unnecessary changes to ensure it is clear “what the brand is”. Consistency in dining (true with all consumer markets) builds trust and it explains a lot of Amazon's success. Evolution of a concept is rarely a bad thing, but change the core too much and you risk confusing guests around what they will expect the next time they visit. The consistency of Wetherspoon’s Wi-Fi (it always works!) may seem a small thing, but it builds a simple memory structure/asset in customers’ minds: “If I need a quick 20 minutes of Wi-Fi I will pop into Spoons because it always works.” 

Sharp’s principles – and Wetherspoon’s – are not for everyone or even every brand; and part of the skill is judging which are most appropriate for your situation (with a little outside guidance) and then having the confidence to apply them in the most impactful way. 

This article was originally published in Propel Friday Opinion.

Morar HPI Limited is part of MIG Global and part of the Next15 Group.

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