Like celebrity chef, Heston Blumenthal, brought in to design a new menu, for me, the Little Chef brand is a faded childhood memory.
My own recommendations two years ago (which were available free of charge via this blog) included investing in core values by being much more family-friendly and accessible. At present, even the “flagship restaurant” (what a misnomer) featured on the programme lacks soul. Based on the A303 at Popham in Hampshire, I drive past it at least twice a week – but I’ve only stopped there once some eight years ago.
Little Chef CEO, Ian Pegler’s interview with the Guardian reveals his belief that all the brand needs is media coverage. This is what I said it did not need, until it had rebuilt a reputation based on a solid place in British cultural life.
Heston seemed to grasp my recommended strategy, although his initial menu choices clearly were designed to fit his own brand image (and the needs of dramatic television). Pegler, slated this as not being sufficiently “outside the box” or “blue sky” to get him the “free publicity” that he understands public relations to be about.
Dehli Mix quite rightly observes:
…it doesn’t make for good PR when you call in a celebrity chef and know you’re being watched by millions of viewers on TV and then slam the phone down because the consultant you hired is asking you for gross profit figures because he needs to know how much you have to play around with!
Pegler is quoted by the Guardian as saying “I’m a great believer in PR-ing the business. It is cheaper than advertising.” As I’ve muttered under my breath a zillion times in marketing meetings, PR IS NOT A VERB.
But Pegler is a 1990s man and it shows – he seems to believe that having worked for brands that were successful in that decade makes him a publicity expert. Exploiting charity links with royalty might have generated headlines, but they are yesterday’s chip paper and didn’t alter public perceptions one bit. I really doubt Pegler has ever worked with truly successful strategic public relations experts.
There is a great advert on television at the moment to celebrate 25 years of Virgin Atlantic. It epitomises the spirit of the brand with a funny nostalgic look back to 1984. Virgin clearly knows its values and these come over loud and clear. Little Chef, like the Wimpy bar in the background of the Virgin ad, is lucky to still be around.
The Little Chef website is dated and doesn’t even acknowledge the new celebrity designed menu (so far as I can see). Certainly, the company has a loyal customer base as the comments at Channel 4 reveal. But what they are asking for – which will also appeal to new customers is tasty, inexpensive, British cooking in a clean and pleasant environment with staff who are friendly and helpful.
Little Chef dates back just over 50 years (to 1958), being launched at the same time as the first British motorway. As I wrote back in 2006,
Little Chef epitomises Britain’s road-culture – we don’t speed silently along autobahns or stop enmass for Le Picnic as our French cousins. Our long journeys still involve I-Spy and singing games, before the children cry “are we nearly there yet” and “I need a wee” (despite all the in-car entertainment systems). At a time where there are demands for protecting British culture, surely it couldn’t be too late for strategic public relations to resuscitate the reputation of Little Chef?
Sadly, I don’t believe that the television show and its associated publicity, nor the efforts of Heston Blumenthal’s new menu will do that. As with Woolworth‘s, I think it is inevitable that Little Chef will be nothing more than a “do you remember” brand.