ANALYSIS: Whatever became of Wimpy bars? - Burger chain Wimpy has just announced plans to for a new brand in the UK fast-food chicken market. Claire Murphy asks if the independent player can ever rival fast-food giants like McDonald’s and KFC

Dream Topping, Smash, Babycham, Wimpy. No list of archetypal 70s brands would be complete without the burger chain, known for its squeezy, tomato-shaped ketchup bottles and Bender sausages.

Dream Topping, Smash, Babycham, Wimpy. No list of archetypal 70s

brands would be complete without the burger chain, known for its

squeezy, tomato-shaped ketchup bottles and Bender sausages.



You may not have eaten in a Wimpy since 1977. Many of you may have

assumed that Wimpy’s days were numbered once McDonald’s arrived on the

scene, offering burgers in cheaper, quicker and often more

family-friendly surroundings.



But after surviving three owners over the past ten years, the arrival of

McDonald’s and Burger King, and the impact of BSE, the original UK

burger brand is still growing, and is even supporting a new venture.

Later this month, owner Wimpy International launches Dr Beaks - a

chicken fast-food chain that the company says will take on KFC.



Dr Beaks aims to capitalise on the health-driven popularity of white

meat. Wimpy has certainly hit on a sector with potential - Mintel

figures show that the chicken fast-food sector has grown by 25% over the

past five years, reaching pounds 530m last year. However, the burger

sector is growing faster still, with a 32% increase since 1994.



The chain intends to take further advantage of public nutrition concerns

by offering oven-baked chicken alongside the more traditional fried

food. Three outlets will open within the next three months, and the aim

is to have 100 franchises within the next five years.



Growth market



Market leader KFC is sanguine about the extra competition. ’We’re not

surprised that others are diversifying into our sector, as chicken is a

growth market,’ says John Prior, marketing director at KFC UK. ’However,

we are the experts, and consumers rarely prefer an imitation. Also, I’m

not sure whether the name Dr Beaks inspires confidence in the

product.’



But KFC isn’t taking the extra competition lying down. This week it will

announce that it has removed all reconstituted meat from its menu,

opening up a challenge to Dr Beaks, as well as McDonald’s and Burger

King. This move comes hard on the heels of two new products - boneless

Crispy Strips and Twister. KFC is also speeding up its one-a-week

opening programme to meet its goal of 1000 sites in the UK by 2008.



None of this alarms Wimpy chief executive Max Woolfenden, who says: ’We

have been competing with McDonald’s since it launched here.’ Wimpy does

appear to have mastered the art of bouncing back.



Although the core of its business has always been restaurants with table

service, Wimpy had already opened some counter-service outlets, only to

be eclipsed by McDonald’s in the late 70s.



By the late 80s, Wimpy’s owner, United Biscuits, gave up the fight and

put the chain up for sale. But new owner Grand Metropolitan turned out

to be only interested in Wimpy for one thing - its prime high street

counter-service sites - which were promptly rebranded as Burger

King.



The current incarnation of the company was born in 1990, when

Woolfenden, together with colleagues John Francis and John Davison,

bought it out from Grand Met.



The trio were saddled with a restrictive clause in their contract,

inserted by canny Grand Met lawyers, preventing them from operating

counter-service restaurants or drive-throughs. This meant that Wimpy

lagged behind in the fastest-growing sectors of the market.



Only a year after being freed from these limitations, Wimpy and its

rivals were engulfed in the BSE crisis - something Woolfenden admits

’hit us hard’. At the height of the crisis, Wimpy saw sales of its beef

lines slump by around 20% in.



Woolfenden maintains that Wimpy recovered well after launching various

alternatives. Wimpy was also the first chain to put Spicy Beanburgers on

its menu (in 1985), despite the wealth of publicity from Burger King

when it brought out a BK version in 1989. Other little-known Wimpy

firsts were the introduction of meat substitute Quorn in 1997, and the

use of brown buns.



Herein lies the problem: there have been changes at Wimpy, but most

consumers are not aware of them. The last brand advertising for Wimpy

came out in the late 80s, before it was sold by UB.



Its marketing has since been reliant on tactical radio ads, themed

around special offers and limited-time products.



Woolfenden admits that the Wimpy brand has been dogged by associations

of the past. ’We have a lot of baggage in that respect, and it has been

a hard slog to change people’s view,’ he says.



Wimpy is also more reliant on franchisees than its competitors, and

actually owns only eight of its 283 restaurants. This means the central

marketing budget has been limited.



Radio campaigns



However, three years ago, Woolfenden brought in consultancy Ignition

Marketing to work out how to update consumer awareness of Wimpy, as well

as to develop the Dr Beaks proposition.



Says Ignition partner Alan Smith: ’We found 100% prompted recognition of

the Wimpy name, but it was all based around people’s visits to Wimpy as

a child. There was a lot of nostalgia there to tap into.’



Ignition has revived the Drifters track Come on over, used in Wimpy TV

ads in the 80s, for radio ads, which began last month. It will use it in

radio campaigns over the next year, reinforcing the ’fun’ aspect of

consumers’ memories and raising awareness that Wimpy still exists.



The company has also worked hard to get Wimpy sites in front of more

hungry consumers.



It struck a deal with Roadchef - the number three roadside services

company behind Granada and Welcome Break - and Wimpy’s new Express

takeaway units are sited on 80 of them.



Franchisees also operate Wimpys at Allied Leisure Megabowl parks and

Fina petrol stations.



Woolfenden maintains that there is still growth potential for Wimpy, but

it remains the David ranged against the burger Goliaths of McDonald’s

and Burger King.



Dr Beaks undoubtedly offers the most profitable new revenue stream for

the company, with all the advantages of a baggage-less brand to work

with.



And that name? Smith points out that, in research, no one was bothered

by the use of the word ’beak’ in conjunction with chicken burgers.



But the venture at least shows that Wimpy is a long way from giving up

in the UK’s fast-food wars.



Key Wimpy dates

- 1954: first branch of Wimpy opens

- 1974: McDonald’s launches in UK

- 1977: Lyons sells Wimpy chain to United Biscuits

- 1989: UB sells Wimpy to Grand Metropolitan

- 1990: Wimpy is bought out by three of its directors



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