How many foodservice brands have adequately addressed consumer concerns over food scares such as BSE and foot and mouth or terrorist attacks? Strong brands are increasingly essential, and Clare Harman learned from the experts how to build and maintain that elusive key to a successful foodservice business.

Around the world, consumers are changing. An obvious statement perhaps, but an essential one for foodservice businesses to address if they are to realise the importance of a strong brand and thrive in coming years.

At a very basic level, the average consumer has got less time to spare. [S]he is also getting older and more affluent. In the ten-year period to 2006, the number of 55-56 year olds in the UK is expected to rise by 25%. In total, 21% of the UK population eats out once a month or more. Evidence meanwhile points to the negative impact of the attacks on the US last September on some areas of the hospitality industry; people are currently more likely to grab food "on the go" than sit down and enjoy a served meal.

So those who are eating out are eating out differently, and are often making more conservative choices than they may have done in the past to ensure quality, value for money and safety. The message from Marketing Week's 10th annual conference in London last week took these observations further, however, to reveal that consumers will use brands to navigate their path through the current climate of apprehension over terrorist attacks or food health scares such as BSE or foot and mouth disease.

This creates a great opportunity for those who get their brands right. As Simone Barry, sales manager at NPD Foodservice, pointed out, "in times of uncertainty, quality brands will become increasingly important". And this is the difficulty for foodservice operators - they need to conceive, build and maintain a quality brand. Conference chairman Peter Barrett, director of Debenhams Foodservices, was insistent that this needs close attention. "Great brands don't die," he told listeners, "management kills them off". The challenge has been set for quick service restaurants - but what are the category leaders doing about it?

Understanding the brand

Rüdiger Gottschalk, head of P&G Professional UK/Eire, stressed the importance of three simple questions that should be properly answered before brands are launched on an unsuspecting market: Who is the product/service for? What is it? And how will it be marketed to reach its target audience?

"Marketing is not rocket science," he insisted, but went on to describe three occasions during which P&G got it wrong. One of these was the Sunny Delight marketing misadventure, an example, according to Gottschalk of P&G getting the How? Question wrong. The television advertising for the juice drinks meant "it was perceived that Sunny Delight was a health drink for kids… which Sunny Delight isn't really." This mistake risked losing the brand's credibility amongst consumers, hence the company has relaunched the drink with a focus on "fun and colour".

Of course, understanding the consumer is a priority for guaranteeing profits. NPD Foodservice's Simone Barry points out that consumers are looking for food when they want it, and food which is healthy and convenient. Simple menu additions are increasing sales in foodservice venues across the US where companies have spotted the consumer demand for breakfast. This important meal is offering companies a massive untapped market in Europe, she argues.

Healthy conflict

The issue of health foods meanwhile is a difficult one for foodservice operators to negotiate. Barry admits that the majority of consumers "talk light, eat fat" and this could well leave many restaurants wondering whether to pander to the audible calls for healthy options, or to allow consumers to succumb to their inner, and potentially more profitable, desires. This conflict emerged as one of the key themes of the conference.

Joanne Maguire, Beefeater marketing controller for Whitbread Pubs and Bars, talked the conference delegates through the new concept of GrillBar, the emphasis of which is definitely on enjoyment. As an informal restaurant concept, that aims to minimise the mass market feel from which consumers are turning away and capitalise on its positioning by encouraging a high frequency of use, GrillBar boasts an unashamed offering of large portions; indulgent ice cream desserts; limitless amounts of bread and chips, and an open char grill theatre.

The "domestic cuisine with a contemporary twist" has been developed in order to satisfy the current consumer trend towards exploration in food choice (one third of adults, especially women, are interested in "trying something different", says Maguire) but it does not address foremost the trend of healthy eating. Asked about this, Maguire admitted, "Health eating and veggie dinners we don't attack very well."

Challenge to suppliers

She went on to suggest however that that was the fault of suppliers, and a challenge for them going forward: "we haven't seen anything [from this category] that inspires us to put it on our menu".

The notion of healthy eating and vegetarianism are often closely associated, yet in the real world vegetarians can eat just as unhealthily as carnivores. That said, Marlow Food's commercial director Pete Banks played down the significance of the company's Quorn as a meat free dish, in favour of it being a healthy one. He pointed out that all consumers have the same fundamental goals in life… to live longer, to have more fun and to get good value for money. These desires are not mutually exclusive in the world of healthy eating in foodservice, Banks insisted. He added that 86% of people say that they want to eat more healthily, but that healthy eating items generally account for less than 10% of foodservice operators' menu options.

Meat free dishes are just one thread of this trend, and Banks encouraged foodservice companies to take the lead in marketing them as everyday options "actively good for everyone"; and building brands that are based on empathy, safety and reassurance, rather than the more common angle of "food that is less bad for you", reductionist (with emphasis on things being taken out) or supplemented (with added health boosters). If suppliers and operators make a commitment to healthy eating as a foodservice category, said Banks, the sales will show for themselves: "Making money, that's what we're all here for; finding ways to do things together."

Convenience key

On the convenience side meanwhile, Robert Cowley, vending development manager for Cadbury Trebor Bassett, waxed lyrical about the virtues of vending as a means of communicating a brand (some of Cadbury's machines are designed in the guise of Cadbury chocolate products) and picking up those all important impulse buys. Of course, in the confectionery sector where the vast majority of all sales are impulse, vending has a powerful potential. However, says Cowley, it needn't stop there and complementary products can also get a slice of the action by teaming up their products in the same vending machine (distress purchase machine, as he called it) for cross purchasing.

Co-branding

Such co-branding can go even further within the foodservice arena, if brands are to boost their weight and reputation. One example presented at the conference came from the Little Chef roadside restaurant chain. Jill Brown, sales and marketing director for the company, explained to delegates the idea of offering Little Chef in tandem with other high profit brands controlled by its parent company, the Compass Group. Consumers were able to enjoy more choice and variety, while the benefits of each brand rubbed off on each other to create a more formidable branded effort.

For fifty years, explained Brown, Little Chef was a constant - and therein lay its weakness. The consumer base was still broad (largely owing to the convenient location of many outlets on every A-road in the country) but to the public at large, Little Chef was rather boring. Brown had her work cut out then, convincing potential customers that the reality was different to the perceived image, but a major part of her strategy involved using other brands in high profile roles in the chain. Thus Linda McCartney supplied the new vegetarian section of the menu and Baby Organix products were offered to families with small children. Most importantly, Harry Ramsden's fish and chips, Upper Crust baguettes and Ritazza coffee came on board for equal brand exposure with Little Chef on signage, the menu and promotional material, bringing with them more customers and a heightened profile for the rather staid chain.

"Some say four into one won't go," said Brown, "maybe they're not very good at maths […] I believe it is a good start, a fresh start, but we have no intentions of resting on our laurels […] No brand is safe in this fickle and changing market."

Consistent passion

So, whether building and preserving a quality brand requires tight focus, or even a diversification of the offering, above all it requires energy and commitment. As Graham Hales, strategic director for brand identity at Interbrand, pointed out, a key component in success means that the brand should come from the centre of the company, rather than be viewed as a peripheral marketing tool. "Brands are not superfluous or a bit fluffy," he said: "they should be guiding the direction of the company."

Ways to achieve this, he suggested, involved first being brave enough to create a truly distinctive brand, which is then protected passionately above all else. The ethos of the brand must then be consistently reiterated down to the point of sale, and "lived" by the people involved.

Perhaps it is only when companies themselves have the faith in and commitment to their brands, that consumers find themselves wiling to invest their own trust, loyalty… and money.

By Clare Harman, just-food.com journalist