Profile: Putting love on the menu at PizzaExpress

Pizza Express marketing director Emma Woods
Pizza Express marketing director Emma Woods

Emma Woods, marketing director at PizzaExpress, plans to build on both her own and consumer affection for the chain. Interview by John Reynolds.

If your food of choice is pizza, then a night out in, say, Bradford or Slough could soon become a rather more appealing proposition as PizzaExpress is attempting to bring a culinary and cultural transformation to such places.

The restaurant chain is overhauling its 380 UK outlets into hubs of flirting pizziaoli and theatrically trained waiting staff who will serve up lower-calorie pizzas and raspberry lemonade against a backdrop of classic films projected onto the walls. Moreover, tables specially designed to dampen the acoustics will ensure that diners no longer have to holler over their Sloppy Giuseppe to be heard.

Orchestrating this move to shape the PizzaExpress of tomorrow is Emma Woods, the brand's marketing and creative director, who offers Marketing a guided tour of its test-bed restaurant in Richmond, London.

Woods, who has a tub-thumping conscience about the value of the brands she markets, has been burning the midnight oil to ensure the Richmond 'lab' was ready for its grand opening, which was attended by celebrities such as The Who's guitarist, Pete Townshend, although not by local resident Mick Jagger.

A quick look around on a midweek afternoon gives a snapshot of the kind of customers that PizzaExpress is trying to lure en masse: a solitary businessman on a laptop; young families; and a hip-looking creative type.

The similarities between PizzaExpress' current project, argues Woods, and founder Peter Boizot's pioneering approach to introducing the concept to the UK in the 60s is hard to ignore.

She cites Boizot's belief that every one of his restaurants 'should be a pearl necklace and not a clone', explaining that her aim is to tailor each PizzaExpress outlet to suit its location.

'PizzaExpress is a "national-treasure" brand, and it is harder to innovate around brands that people love,' says Woods. 'But I am pleased with what we have done. I am proud of the pizziaoli enjoying their job and showcasing their pizza-making, and the work we have done around children.'

Catering specifically for children, to tap into the family market, is a fundamental strategy for most chain restaurants. PizzaExpress' answer is to appease noisy kids with electronic learning games in a dedicated child zone.

Such wheezes don't come cheap. Nor does PizzaExpress' move into the breakfast market, with a menu that will include an egg, pancetta and bechamel pizza.

In short, PizzaExpress is looking to follow in the footsteps of Wetherspoon pubs and Costa Coffee, as a late entrant into the lucrative breakfast arena.

In the highly competitive pizza-restaurant dining market, PizzaExpress has established itself as the upmarket alternative to the likes of Pizza Hut. Its latest full-year figures revealed a revenue of £350m in the UK.

However, its status as the torch-bearer for quality pizzas on the nation's high streets is being challenged by the arrival of chains such as Rossopomodoro.

Perhaps more pressing, though, is the nation's penchant for wolfing down cheaper takeaway pizzas in front of the TV.

Yet Woods is enjoying the challenge and would appear to have found her home at PizzaExpress, only the second company she has worked for, after 18 years at Unilever.

So why leave Unilever? 'It is important for me to work on brands I love, and the offer came up when I had children. I had been flying around Europe and Latin America for years, so the time felt right.'

The job at PizzaExpress, where Woods also sits on the executive board, is a mutli-faceted one, covering everything from the food and design of menus, advertising and CSR to unifying a group of free-thinking creatives and designers.

She believes its current approach to advertising - principally word-of-mouth and digital activity - is right for the brand. 'Our marketing budget is very small and it is hard for creative agencies to understand what we do, as they don't live and breathe the brand like we do,' she says.

The brand's view on major above-the-line activity has no doubt been tainted by a TV campaign it ran that Woods succinctly describes as having 'bombed'.

An annual marketing budget in the region of only £3m inevitably requires marketers to think creatively, and Woods, no doubt to her bosses' delight, has saved the company money by coaxing her budding actress of a daughter to be photographed for the menu cards.

At times taciturn and self-analytical, it quickly becomes apparent - even to a cynical journalist - that Woods is a bona fide fan of her brand's pizzas, to the extent that her family holds 'debriefings' every Friday in one of PizzaExpress' restaurants.

While it is refreshing to meet a marketer with an interest in the worthiness of their products, how Woods reconciles this with marketing a high-calorie food such as pizza is unclear. What is clear, however, is that her views on PizzaExpress contrast markedly with her feelings toward Slim-Fast, a brand she worked on as European marketing director between 2000 and 2004. Woods is dismissive of the weight-loss system, insisting that there is 'no magic pill' for losing weight and that it is 'difficult trying to sell something that consumers feel indifferent about'.

Unilever's Flora pro.activ spread brand, on which Woods worked for five years, is given a rather warmer reception, however. 'I led the marketing of pro.activ, which, as a product, has had an impact on people's lives. It genuinely does work,' says Woods.

Her tenure at Unilever coincided with that of ex-Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan and former Unilever marketing guru Simon Clift. Woods describes the former as charismatic, ambitious and 'good with young people', while the latter she refers to simply as 'the ultimate brand guru'.

It is perhaps surprising that Woods ever embarked on a career in marketing. After all, having studied experimental psychology at Oxford, she might easily have remained in academia. Twenty years on, though, she is still 'surprising herself' with how much she enjoys marketing.

Woods, who has a goal of opening 20 restaurants a year and feels there is 'a major opportunity to expand outside London', adds that she is only just getting started. With that she is off, preparing for the restaurant chain's evening customers, although not before she has demonstrated the individual iPod docking stations on each of the branch's tables.

As competition in her sector increases, Woods' apparently genuine affection for, and enthusiasm about, the PizzaExpress brand, will no doubt stand it in good stead for whatever lies ahead.

INSIDE WORK

1990-2008: Varied marketing roles including marketer on Peperami, rising to Latin America regional category director for Pond's and Vaseline, Unilever

2008-now: Board-level marketing and creative director, PizzaExpress

OUTSIDE WORK

Family: Married with four children

Favourite products: Brompton bikes and PizzaExpess' Soho pizza

And another thing ... She is a compulsive viewer of The X Factor

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