A pint, or two, in a J D Wetherspoon pub

July 2010

Recent months have taken me to a somewhat varied group of towns and cities for business and pleasure, including Glasgow, Llandudno (a little bizarrely the latter for business and the former for pleasure) Birmingham airport, Solihull and Inverness. The only common link is that all had at least one Wetherspoon pub. ‘So what?’ you might reasonably ask, but actually there’s a brand success story here which is more than a little worthy of taking its place in my monthly comment. In truth though, the statistic I’ve just quoted about all these places having a Wetherspoon wouldn’t have become apparent to me if I didn’t have a love for real ale. But I do, and, even if you don’t, understanding a little of the success of the Wetherspoon brand against a backdrop of an otherwise failing pub industry, is worth getting your head around.

Let’s start with some figures: As at the 14th May Wetherspoon had 771 pubs (so my copy of ‘Wetherspoon News’ tells me which I picked up yesterday in their pub in Birmingham airport – a place I enjoyed a fine pint of Abbot Ale in) and they’re planning to open another 250. Currently, pubs owned by pretty much everyone else across the UK are closing at the very alarming rate of 52 per week. Which begs the obvious question why Wetherspoon can expand in an ever-contracting market? I’ve no doubt leisure industry market analysts (which I’m most certainly not) will have all the facts and figures around just why this is, but my monthly comment is, as the title suggests, about my view of the world so here it is.

Patently low prices – and at a time when consumers really want them

Firstly, you won’t find a cheaper pint of beer, glass of wine or measure of spirit than you will in a Wetherspoon. And we’re not just talking about a few pence; a pint of real ale is quite often a £1 or more less than in another pub just down the road. Right now and, for the foreseeable future, that sort of price differential is hard to resist – even if other aspects of the pub chain’s offer aren’t entirely to your liking. Quite how Wetherspoon are able to have such low prices is the subject to a fair bit of debate and speculation (Google the topic and you’ll see what I mean) but let’s not worry about that here: The fact is that they charge low prices and still make a profit, whereas others in the same market charge higher prices and are going out of business.

Enough space to have your own space

Next up for me is their typical environment. Though actually ‘typical environment’ might not be the best term, because Wetherspoon has taken on premises as diverse as old banks, cinemas, theatres and even supermarkets. But what they all have in common is a sense of space which, unlike many town and city centre pubs, set them apart – the traditional pub was hardly built centuries ago with ‘open space’ in mind. This means a lot of people, and very different people (see next point), can enjoy being in one big place without bumping into each other and fighting for the next available seat on a busy Friday evening. And as an aside, what a great use of these otherwise redundant buildings? As I enjoyed my pint of local real ale in the Llandudno Wetherspoon last month, I looked up to the decorative ceiling of this once grand theatre and wondered what would have come of the building if JDW hadn’t taken it on. ‘Empty and derelict’ I concluded.

Going back to the space issue, this actually has a benefit which goes further than just appealing to the more claustrophobic of us…

Because of the space and offer, OAPs to a girls’ night out all under one roof

One very obvious thing when you enter a Wetherspoon is the broad cross section of consumers it attracts. There are no doubt individual pubs which this might also be true of, but clearly it isn’t the norm – go into your typical town centre hostelry and even the first view of its inevitably fairly specific clientele at the bar and tables, will soon tell you if you should be in there or not. Not so Wetherspoon: ‘Camps’ representing a very diverse mix society can be seen scattered in different areas of the pub’s vast interior, from OAPs (in particular at lunchtimes – its heaving with them) to students, hen parties (obviously not at lunchtimes…), football supporters and families. You name them and there’ll be in there.

Of course the low prices are a draw to all these consumer groups, but would low prices be enough to attract a half a dozen girls in their early twenties on a night out to sit on a table right next to the same number of men old enough to be their great granddads? I don’t think so, but put them at the other end of a pub the area of which is measured in hectares, and it’s no problem at all.

Half decent food

In truth I’ve been a tad disappointed by the few meals I’ve had in Wetherspoon, but they certainly weren’t bad, and they certainly weren’t expensive. Coupled with this, is endless offers which include a drink, which all adds up to outstanding value. In fact it’s almost inconceivable that you’ll get an acceptable plate of food and drink to go with it for less money anywhere.

Living the brand

From what I read and sense, Wetherspoon is a pretty good employer. In fact they’ve had awards for it and recently became the only pub company to go into the top 55 employers in the UK. Training is apparently very good, managers are typically promoted from within, and career plans can be mapped out for capable and ambitious employees wanting a career in the pub trade – and why not. What does all this mean for the consumer experience? Typically, being served by someone who is happy to serve you and keen to do a good job – compare that to your average miserable pub barman doing the job because ‘it was the only thing going’.

Supporting the local brewer

This is only relevant to Wetherspoon’s army of real ale lovers, but the brand’s support of local and local micro breweries is truly second to none. Go in a Wetherspoon in south Devon and, alongside better known brews from larger breweries, you’ll find one from a micro brewery buried in an old farm building in the depths of darkest Dartmoor. In fact without Wetherspoon, it would be fair to say that the relatively buoyant micro brewery industry in the UK would be struggling to survive at all.

Vision, strategy and the right internal culture

Like most brand success stories, it isn’t one thing in Wetherspoon that the success can be attributed to. However, my sense is that all of the points above are being driven by a clear brand vision, brand strategy, and a healthy internal culture which employees thrive in. On the operational side, supply chain and a myriad of other business disciplines will all be at work and doing their bit to contribute to the success of the brand, but they aren’t the things which set the brand apart.

So a lesson in brand management which ever sector or market you operate in, and if you need more convincing then pop into your local Wetherspoon and enjoy a pint of Nutty Slack at a respectable 3.9% ABV.

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