Warren Johnson, Managing Director at W Communications talks to Figaro Digital about the agency’s award-winning Twitter campaign, which took cult pop-up diner MEATliquor from a disused pub in South London to the heart of the mainstream media
In the credit-crunched 2010s, a new street food movement built on pop-up shops, innovative business models and online communities means that for plenty of hip urbanites the nightclub has been replaced by the kitchen. Among the most successful of the new food enterprises has been MEATliquor, the London and Brighton diner which used Twitter to transform itself from a cult event in a South London car park to a mainstream media phenomenon without sacrificing any of its New Cross kudos.
“When you look at every recession there’s always an anti-establishment, anti-corporate movement,” says Warren Johnson, MD at W Communications, the agency who ran MEATliquor’s Twitter campaign. “You had punk in the 1970s, rave in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now that movement is focussed on food. There are lots of successful businesses that started off with what were ostensibly guerrilla-style strategies. It was really important with MEATliquor to maintain that ethos because these are people who’ve got where they are the old fashioned way: by just being really good at what they do.”
W Communications describe the Twitter campaign as an ‘anti-launch strategy’, designed to position MEATliquor as a cultural rather than a purely culinary experience. MEATliquor founder Yianni Papoutsis is a former production technician at the Royal Ballet who’d cooked at Burning Man Festival in Nevada before running his own burger van – a tasty attraction for adventurous carnivores called the Meatwagon – in London’s New Cross. When the van was pinched, Papoutsis went in to business with publican and entrepreneur Scott Collins. In 2011 the pair launched #MEATeasy, a pop-up diner located in the upstairs room of a disused pub on New Cross Road.
“I entered stage left when they did that first pop-up in New Cross,” says Johnson. “We went down for the opening night. I knew Yianni and Scott were both very prominent on Twitter – they were also quite influential food bloggers. At W we’ve always had a lot of media clients but at that point we probably hadn’t been so exposed to Twitter. What was incredible that night was getting down to deepest New Cross, having to climb up the fire escape to get in to the pub, and seeing this place absolutely full, simply because it had been Tweeted a few times. That was when the power of Twitter really became apparent.”
With Papoutsis and Scott looking for a permanent, bricks-and-mortar venue, Johnson came in as an investor and took on the challenge of translating #MEATeasy’s underground cachet into a mainstream business success without alienating the fans who loved the operation precisely because itwasn’t mainstream.
“We started to see the interconnectedness between social media and mainstream media,” says Johnson, “and that became the backbone for our comms strategy as we moved towards the launch.”
Johnson, who set up W Communications in 2009 after eight years at Freud Communications, happily admits this was new territory for the agency; though well used to working with major brands, W hadn’t been involved in a restaurant launch before. With a venue located and MEATliquor’s launch scheduled for November 2011, W’s challenge now was to cook up anticipation across social media, selling the brand as an exciting cultural experience without appearing to sell out.
“What I realised,” says Johnson, “is that this was a very different way of setting up a restaurant. So we went out of our way not to talk to restaurant critics. We thought that whole AA Gill-style thumbs up/thumbs down model was finished. The people who were actually there at #MEATeasy were far more informed, engaged and interested than that.”
The first step in W’s strategy was the decision not to write a conventional press release about the launch. Increasingly, says Johnson, traditional media channels play a secondary role to Twitter. “We thought, let’s just focus on the fans – the people who are really into this. The way it grew then was very organic. The strategy was rooted in a terribly old fashioned form of marketing: the one where you have a great product and you just talk about that. As Apple has demonstrated, it’s a model that still works very well. For us it’s been all about the food, the product and the experience.”
Working closely with Papoutsis and Scott, W then capitalised on existing buzz and engagement. In the run up to MEATliquor’s opening, a series of tantalisingly cryptic Tweets appeared, hinting at what was to come. ‘111111’ served as a clue to the launch date. Fans were encouraged to work out where the restaurant would be by deciphering a Tweet containing map co-ordinates. The sense was of something happening but, crucially, the campaign played first and foremost to the existing MEATliquor community.
“There was a symbiotic relationship where the guys were doing something very cool and naturally – through word of mouth on social media – that began to attract more people,” says Johnson.
Feeling the heat
So effective was this strategy that it gave rise to an unexpected problem. By the time the first restaurant opened behind Oxford Street in November 2011, MEATliquor’s social stock was so high that it was being talked and written about as one of London’s hippest night’s out. Giles Coren in the Times noted the “immense internet buzz.” “My date asked me how I’d heard about MEATliquor,” wrote Oliver Denton in Metro. “It’s trendy, I answered, trying to cover the fact that I had no reasonable answer, other than it’s ‘one of those Twitter places’.”
“It got so much heat so quickly that all the stories running were about the ‘coolest restaurant in London’,” says Johnson. “We saw that as a problem, because people were coming not because it’s such a great place, but because it was getting written about.”
Since the restaurant ran a no-bookings policy, the media and celebs were queuing up nightly. It was as if your favourite underground, festival band were suddenly appearing on The One Show. Sticking to the original grass-roots, community ethos, W took the unusual step of moving to neutralise chatter about MEATliquor’s cool quotient and brought the conversation back to food by releasing stories about the restaurant’s ingredients and recipes.
Selling the sizzle
Two years on from the opening of that first branch and the proof of the strategy’s success is in the (black) pudding. There are now two London venues and a Brighton restaurant. According to Johnson the business is currently valued at over £10 million. Founders Papoutsis and Scott are reputed to be turning down corporate mega-deals, but will no doubt be doing it their way when they release their ‘anti-cook book’ The MEATliquor Chronicles, featuring Huey Morgan of Fun Lovin’ Criminals and novelist DBC Pierre, in April 2014. Meanwhile, everyone from Vogue to the Financial Times wants a slice of the MEATliquor pie.
“Our big fear was accusations of selling out,” Papoutsis has said. “W Communications uniquely grasped the power of our cult Twitter following and used those conversations themselves to spread the word, cleverly maintaining our cult followers’ feeling of ownership, and at the same time cultivating a cultural phenomena in the mainstream media.” The industry agreed. Graham Norton was on hand to present the W team with the Culture Media and Sport Award at the 2012 PR Week Awards.
“It’s very easy to spend a lot of money on big campaigns,” says Johnson. “We had a very unique model on this. I was an investor. We were on a peppercorn budget. Yet we were instrumental in helping grow the business. We weren’t looking to deliver coverage for coverage’s sake. People come to agencies like us because they want to be in the papers. But we’re really passionate about delivering business value. What was interesting was doing that while retaining MEATliquor’s integrity – not alienating the core audience.”
According to one of the marketing industry’s favourite maxims, coined back in the 1930s by US writer and salesman Elmer Wheeler, advertising is about selling the sizzle, not the steak. As social media closes the gap between our ideas about brands and our actual experience of them, so companies may find that the sizzle alone is no longer enough. Campaigns like this may be one way of ensuring consumers get not just the flavour, but an authentic taste, of brands online.
Article by Jon Fortgang