Monday, 17 June 2013

Little Chef – the product life cycle and the death of a brand

A few readers may be familiar with the product life cycle concept. This describes the stages a product goes through from when it was first thought of, to launch, growth, maturity, decline and in some instances death. Death of a product is normally caused by such causes as technological obsolescence, massive public distrust or reaction caused by a scandal and in some instances they have just had their time. One such brand which is facing such a fate and which holds deep memories for many, including myself, is Little Chef.

Little Chef was founded by a gentleman called Sam Alper who actually ran a caravn making business in East London. He launched it after trips to America, enjoying its roadside diners which gave a much different experience to the road side caf├ęs in the UK. From his first restaurant in Reading in 1958 grew a British institution that created such entries into the British psyche as the Olympic Breakfast and Jubilee Pancakes.

The iconic Fat Charlie sign dominated the roadsides of Britain for 50 years but from its heyday in the 1980’s consumer habits changed. Roads became better, as did cars and long journeys therefore became less arduous and stops became more infrequent and shorter. Petrol stations offered coffee and decent sandwiches, well they offered sandwiches. Fast food outlets opened on the roadside offering a modern quick option for the weary driver. The words “lets stop for a happy meal” started to have an impact on families tired of bickering children in the back of the car.

Since 2000 the Little Chef business has been bought and sold a number of times and also been in administration. Each time outlets were closed and its grip on the roadside catering industry loosened. It tried different strategies such as in 2004 hiring a brand agency who thought the problem was Fat Charlie and re-drew him as a thinner version promoting 15,000 complaints. Some success came in 2009 when Heston Blumenthal updated the menus complete with Channel 4 documentary but this was a drop against a tide. 

Now the business is once again up for sale but today it only has 78 outlets from its heyday of over 400 in the Eighties with 67 outlets closing last year alone. Bids have been received from McDonalds, Starbucks, Costa and Kentucky Fried Chicken any of whom, if successful, are expected to close and rebrand to their own brands.

So let’s return to the product life cycle. Numerous books have been written on the subject with many more on how products and brands can avoid the latter terminal stage. Many brands have managed to avoid death through revitalising strategies anything from brand extentions, re-positioning and even simply changing your packaging. One of the best often quoted examples is Oil of Olay once a mothers day gift favourite and now a multi-million, multi-brand extension cosmetic powerhouse. 

Sometimes though even if you change the packaging and adjust what’s underneath, if its not what the consumer wants then the inevitable will happen. So it looks certain that in a very short time the iconic roadside image of Little Chef will be consigned to brand history. Without the occasional death there would be no new life. So next time you stop at the services please raise your Costa or Starbucks as you eat your M&S or Waitrose sandwich in memory.

Tim Youngman is director of marketing for Archant

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Wearable computing – computing is about to get very personal

Another couple of hours spent researching the difference between a Jawbone Up, Fitbit Flex and Nike Fuelband helped me decide on the topic for this week’s column. Those names will probably mean nothing to most readers. For those who are into fitness, or just worry about making sure they are getting enough exercise, those names are probably familiar.

They are glorified pedometers, those things given away with healthy breakfast cereals a few years ago that when clipped to your belt told you that you had not walked enough that day. Today they are fully computerised and not only tell you how far you have walked but everything from how many calories you have burnt to even how well you have slept. This is all backed by various apps for your phones and websites where you can further depress yourself on how you are failing in your keep fit targets.

They and those like them are examples of the new trend in wearable computing. The current epitome of which is the Google Glass which looks like a pair of glasses with a small screen over one eye. With it users can access the Internet, take pictures and videos that you can send straight to your Twitter or Facebook account and even have directions up in front of your eye. It’s on limited sale in the US now for $1,500 and will be sold worldwide from the end of this year. It has already created mixed opinions, mainly to do with it making the user looking very, very geeky and also worrying many about personal privacy issues. Some US restaurants are even asking customers wearing them to remove them to protect the privacy of other clientele.

The company that has the real pedigree of changing the way the world uses technology (listening to music, accessing the internet through our phones) has now effectively admitted the long rumoured Apple iWatch. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple stated at the All Things Digital Conference in the US that wearable computers will likely be "another key branch" of the Apple tree adding “the wrist is natural”. When they do release one it will be marketed to a world awash with existing iPhone and iPod users keen and ready to try the new toy. You can also be sure it will only be compatible with iPhones, iPads and iOS devices and not anything Windows or Andriod based. Unsurprisingly therefore, Samsung and others have also announced they too are working on wrist based devices that will work with those operating systems and probably do everything but tell the time.

Where wearable computing will end up is anyone’s guess and I have learnt not to predict.  One example though came from Tom Staggs, the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, who last week announced the MagicBand, a wristband that stores information about consumers' identity and preferences, allowing Disney characters to greet guests by name. The ongoing trends of personalisation, big data and potentially even closer targeting of advertising just continue to get bigger. Whether you think this is exciting or just plain creepy I will leave you to decide. As a marketer I know where I stand, I just need to decide which one to wait for!

Tim Youngman is director of marketing for Archant