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Fri 9th Nov 2018 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Comfort in classics, exceeding guest expectations and brighter news ahead
Authors: Glynn Davis, Laurence Parkes and Ann Elliott

Comfort in classics by Glynn Davis

There is a modest restaurant in north London my family and I only visit on rare occasions since we moved from the area, although over the years the number of meals we’ve eaten there probably makes it one of my most frequented dining rooms in the capital.

The appeal of The Highland Angus in Southgate Green is its timelessness. For me this revolves around its bargain set dinner menu from which I always pick the same options – prawn cocktail to kick things off, followed by steak and chips and a Black Forest gateau to round things off perfectly. This is rightfully washed down with a bottle of Mateus Rosé stored table-side in an ice bucket.

The food is not only terrifically well cooked but the meal transcends taste alone – it’s the sort of dining experience that brings back lots of happy memories. Taking my young children there nowadays is particularly evocative as it prompts me to recall my parents taking me to the Berni Inn in the centre of Doncaster, where I enjoyed small portions of the same three dishes. Nothing has changed in the enjoyment I get from these particular items – despite the intervening 40-plus years.

It seems I’m not alone in my enjoyment of these classic dishes – I prefer not to call them retro as this makes them sound like a gimmicky concoction that’s returned to the table merely for nostalgic reasons – UK diners are apparently yearning for some of the old classics that have drifted off menus in recent years.

Among 2,000 restaurant-goers in the UK surveyed by OpenTable, the top ten most missed dishes included stroganoff, steak diane, peach melba, chicken kiev and coq au vin. Topping the table was gammon egg and chips, with more than one-quarter (27%) of people saying they would be more likely to visit a restaurant if the dish was on the menu.

The appeal of these dishes is they are easily recognisable, with simple ingredients and creation. This is important to a lot of people, according to Barclaycard research that found almost one-quarter (23%) of UK diners have walked out of a restaurant because they found the menu too confusing.

For those who stayed, more than half (55%) were disappointed by a dish when it arrived because it wasn’t what they expected. This is hardly a surprise because the research also shows 91% of diners admit they don’t always recognise items on restaurant menus – despite 33% of them considering themselves a foodie.

This happens to me frequently when dining out and was exemplified recently on a visit to Gamma Gamma in central London, which describes itself as a fusion tapas restaurant. Its menu consisted of dishes featuring a wide variety of Asian influences and, even though every ingredient was exhaustively listed for each dish, a number of them left me no clue as to what they would look or taste like when they emerged from the kitchen.

As it turned out, each dish was massively packed with flavour but I can see why such establishments represent a dilemma for some diners – they would like to try new foods but the risk factor puts a brake on their investigations. 

As a fan of trying new tastes and cuisines and comfortable operating at the extreme end of experimentation, the last thing I would advocate is cautious diners restricting themselves to dishes they know. They would be stuck in a bygone era and we’d all the pay the price for never-changing restaurant menus.

But for me personally, sometimes it’s a great comfort to return to these tried and trusted dishes. They are deemed classics for good reason – not only the flavour combinations but also the glorious memories that flood back when I take that first bite.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

Exceeding guest expectations by Laurence Parkes

People have only recently started to use the term “brand experience” (BX) to talk about how a brand lives across all its touch-points. BX not only has an impact on how a customer feels about a brand, it also has a significant impact on customer spend, loyalty and recommendations. Our research shows top-performing brands command 79% higher purchase intent and an average of 45 net promoter score (NPS) points more than the lowest performing. 

Despite the clear business impact of having extraordinary BX, organisations continue to struggle to deliver consistent, connected and meaningful brand experiences. This is especially true of a service industry such as hospitality. Despite four-fifths (80%) of hoteliers acknowledging guest personalisation and experience would bring their hotel success, only two-thirds (67%) subsequently changed their brand’s image and little more than one-quarter (26%) put money into investing in new technology (source: SiteMinder).

BX strategies should be based on clear insights and measurement. For years we’ve used many of the traditional insight and measurement tools such as brand tracking, customer satisfaction score and NPS, but found it frustrating that no overall measurement existed for brand experience. We knew understanding this would help us identify moments across the entire customer journey, where it’s most important for a brand to exceed customer expectations. We developed the Brand Experience Index (BXi) to fill this gap, which has finally given an overall measurement for BX.

How the BXi works
The BXi has identified five core facets of brand experience that have a direct impact on customer loyalty – “think”, “sense”, “feel”, “do” and “connect”. Details on what each of these entails can be found in the 2018 BXi report. We then conducted a survey of 2,000 UK adults to gauge their views on 30 pre-selected brands across the hotel, B2B, supermarket and financial services sectors. Respondents were asked to rate the brands according to the five facets using a seven-point scale, with findings used to create our BXi. Key findings included:

Hotels need to capitalise on shared spaces 
The hotel category scored high on the “sense” and “connect” facets, driven by venues’ increasing use of space to host community activities – citizenM’s WeWork-style spots and boutique hotels such as The Hoxton hosting cultural events, for example. It is essential to understand the role a hotel can play in its local community in order to create a vibrant and authentic vibe. Identifying communities of interest can also work in your favour – Whitbread-owned Premier Inn targets holiday cyclists and other sub-cultures.

Premium does not equal BX success
Two of the brands that lead their categories are value players – Premier Inn and Asda – beating more premium brands such as Marriott Hotels and Waitrose. This shows extraordinary BX isn’t about throwing money around but finding the right value exchange and surpassing customer expectations. For the past 15 years, Premier Inn has trumpeted its promise of a “good night’s sleep, guaranteed” – not only in comms but in genuine service offerings such as creating a premium bedroom experience with a choice of pillows and Hypnos mattresses. In a marketing landscape where taglines often seem hollow, Premier Inn staking its name and reputation on a tangible benefit makes it meaningful.

Sensorial hotel brands can still beat Airbnb
While most hospitality brands in our study were beaten by the strength of Airbnb, three brands – Travelodge, Premier Inn and Macdonald Hotels – had stronger BXi scores, with data suggesting this is because they surpass expectations in the “sense” facet. Being a mobile-first brand stops Airbnb engaging people on a sensorial level. Consistently delivering experiences that positively engage the senses can make up for the often inconsistent experience of an Airbnb stay. Focusing on over-delivering in the sleep or breakfast experience has enabled Premier Inn to pull away from Airbnb. Other hotel brands should pay attention.

Three tips on ensuring extraordinary BX
Express – leading organisations have a clear purpose that speaks through their brand and everything they do is consistent with that central thought. A great example of this is Premier Inn’s “good night guarantee”. Your brand transcends an advertising slogan and isn’t locked away on a website – it’s something customers feel whenever they interact with you. There are two steps to a successful brand expression – communicate your purpose clearly then follow that up by making it real, everywhere.

Commit – this principle reflects what goes on behind the scenes in a brand-focused organisation. Bringing a large company together to deliver an exceptional brand experience is not something that happens by the chief executive’s diktat – the entire organisation must be behind it, from head office to the front line. Premier Inn has spent a vast amount of time and money ensuring its workers can confidently provide an effortless and memorable experience. For many companies, commitment to change that involves both heart (what will inspire our people and customers?) and head (what are the operational barriers and does this align with our business strategy?) doesn’t come naturally. This is the greatest challenge. We have developed many tools to help organisations achieve this difficult task.

Innovate – market-leading brand experience is always evolving, even if this isn’t always obvious. No leading BXi company has coasted on its reputation, they constantly renew and refresh their approach to this aspect of their business. This sense of continual innovation in service design and digital service delivery is common in high-performing brands but innovation doesn’t have to mean bleeding-edge technology. Premier Inn shows how over-delivering in one moment of the brand experience – with something as basic as a choice of pillows – can be a meaningful innovation in the eyes of the customer.

How BX will evolve over the next 12 months
As the channel and media landscape continues to fragment, consumer expectations of the channels through which they expect to interact with brands will continue to grow. Consumers will expect to contact brands through voice, such as Alexa, social channels like WhatsApp and chatbots. They will also expect brands to seamlessly track their conversations across these multiple channels. This means technical and cultural challenges for brands. The need to have technology that makes it easier for customer service staff to track the conversation will grow. It will become essential for employees to be trained on how to talk in the brand’s voice in divergent contexts. Ultimately, however, businesses that keep consumer needs and their brand promise at the heart of their investments will continue to succeed.
Laurence Parkes is chief strategy officer of brand experience agency Rufus Leonard

Brighter news ahead by Ann Elliott

This has been a frenzied couple of weeks – the sale of Wagamama to TRG, which hasn’t been particularly well received by analysts for some reason, Rooney leaving Greene King, restaurant closures rising one-third across the country, GBK closures, another part of Living Ventures going through a CVA, CDG’s approach to landlords on the front of The Sunday Times, Graham Ford joining Carluccio’s, more news about Patisserie Valerie and Pret, the sale of three Tiger Tiger sites to Deltic. I am sure more has happened and, from conversations I’ve had, there is much more to come.

No operator I’ve met in the past few weeks has told me life is anything other than tough. Even those who have seen strong like-for-like growth said it had come at the expense of margin, particularly if driven by delivery.

Places I frequent often seem to have become a lot quieter lately. Lina stores in Covent Garden had spare tables at lunchtime yesterday, which is unheard of. I could get a table in the evening at Drake & Morgan in King’s Cross, Kettners was beautiful but sparsely populated, Dean Street Townhouse felt only 50% full at lunchtime and the Pret queue was one deep not three. These are all good, consistent and popular locations so I hope it was just a one-off and not representative of trade in November. However, I am concerned.

There are exceptions, of course. As usual they were queuing outside Dishoom, Bill’s in Covent Garden was packed, you couldn’t move in Mr Fogg’s in St Martins Lane and this week JD Wetherspoon announced 5.5% like-for-like growth.

As recently reported by Propel, pub entrepreneur Karen Jones, who was brought in as executive chairman after the restaurant closures, said Prezzo was better positioned but market conditions were still tough. She said: “It’s no longer about expanding, it’s about being better at what we do and building like-for-like growth. The ones that will succeed will be those that deliver price, quality and service.”

Of course she is absolutely right – but that has always been the case. No operator has been able, certainly during the past few years, to deliver sustainable long-term growth (never mind short-term growth) without getting their pricing and value for money right, delivering a consistent quality product, and having great service – these are the foundations of our sector. They are a given and now customers expect more.

One commentator this week told The Times social media was accelerating changes in consumer tastes. “Chain restaurants are particularly vulnerable to changing consumer fads,” the commentator said. “What was once flavour of the month can quickly go out of fashion.”

So social media is having a negative impact on our sector because it celebrates the new and chain restaurants are likely to close because they aren’t new and can’t keep up with trends? It’s an interesting argument with perhaps a grain of truth in it. The need to offer the customer fresh experiences (above and beyond consistent offer delivery) is not a new concept, it has been around forever in the development of new and existing brands in our sector

Social media, though, has undoubtedly upped the stakes. I find the briefs we receive always reflect the tone and feel of the market at that moment. We are currently working on 19 briefs given to us by SMEs (and bigger groups) and many of them are asking us to look at how their brands can deliver differentiated, exciting and compelling experiences for their customers. Focusing on this area will not transform like-for-like sales declines but it might go some way towards a more positive performance and hopefully provide the industry with brighter news in the future.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of Elliotts, the leading integrated marketing agency in the hospitality and leisure sector – www.elliottsagency.com

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