Ex-McDonald’s exec John Upton takes ‘Ronseal’ approach to unlocking sustainable growth

Industry veteran John Upton says it is vital for operators to be able to build a brand with sustainable growth potential – and that means being candid about the strengths and weaknesses associated with their business.  

Upton, now the chairman of food-to-go brands Mother Clucker and The Naked Deli, said how experience working as managing director of Leon and as an executive at McDonald’s allowed him gain insight into what it takes to be sustainable.

Using the Ronseal ‘Does exactly what it says on the tin’ approach, Mr Upton laid out the five steps each food-to-go brand should take to ensure sustainability during a keynote speech at the Lunch! show last week.

He focused on how important it was for an organisation to have a clear customer purpose.

He said: “How many of your organisations have the following mission statement; ‘be the number one X,Y or Z? To be honest, that’s great if you’re a shareholder, that’s great if you’re interested in financials, that’s great if you’re interested in returns but how does that really help you hang your business, hang your mission?”

He explained: “What pinch point, what need are you addressing for your customer base by being the number one X in a certain market? I don’t think you are.”

The rhetorical questions asked of the audience prompted a response which he broke down into what he described as ‘the three R’s’.

Think of yourself as the consumer, how patient are you now with brands when things are a little bit hard or they go wrong? If you love that brand you might give them a chance or two but if you’re trying them out for the first time, how many times will you go back?”

Being realistic was the first of the three, with Mr Upton stressing the fact that organisations need to listen to customers and find out what is good and what is not so good.

He said: “Don’t rely on metrics which say things are going okay, don’t rely on that. Be forensic and be honest with yourselves about how your business is actually performing. This was a key lesson for the start of the McDonald’s turnaround in the mid noughties, we weren’t listening to customers, but, we looked in the mirror found out what we were doing wrong and swallowed that pill.”

The second ‘R’ is about staying relevant, with Upton describing how certain organisations such as Blockbuster and Kodak, who refused to go with the digital age, failed to stay relevant and therefore failed as businesses.

He went on to give an analogy of the VW Golf, which he said is a perfect example of a brand and an extension of a brand which was able to stay relevant while staying true to itself.

Upton’s final ‘R’ was about being relentless and how it is necessary for a brand to stay relevant in everything they do.

He said: “Every day you’ve got to nail the basics, whether you’re in manufacturing, whether you’re in service, in food, in hotels whatever your business might be, you’ve got to be relentless about nailing the basics.”

He continued by saying how relentlessness relates to customer loyalty: “If you’re not nailing the basics day in day out, how are you going to survive against the competition? Think of yourself as the consumer, how patient are you now with brands when things are a little bit hard or they go wrong? If you love that brand you might give them a chance or two but if you’re trying them out for the first time, how many times will you go back? Relentless execution is a key differentiator and sales driver in the marketplace.”

As part of Upton’s remaining points on building sustainable growth, he then went on to describe how in a current market not leaving the customer wanting was vital, acknowledging how they would just go elsewhere.

According to Upton, data is also key, but using it in the right way. He mentioned how ‘Paralysis by Analysis’ was holding a lot of organisations back, and to combat this they need to retrieve and utilise data as quickly as possible without over-analysing.

He then went on to look at the broader market for his final two points, and stressed how taking important decisions was essential no matter the risk, especially as Brexit looms.

He cited a recent conversation he’d had with someone in the industry who was worried about the closure of its first store.

He said: “I was having a conversation with someone recently who was worried about the decision of closing their first store. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing if it is the right thing to do, yes you’ll get some bad PR for a while and it might not be great for financials short term, but go on to open more stores, if that store is not working then make that decision.”

Finally, he concluded with how important it was so have a cohesive leadership team that listened to diverse opinions from across the company as that, from experience, is what he believes is the key to keeping a company moving and relevant.

Last year, FEJ editor Andrew Seymour met with John Upton to find out more on his work with LEON, read more on that here:

KING OF LEON: John Upton on fast food, fluid kitchens and fighting inflation

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