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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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