Thoughts on the cult success of Nando’s (and why it shouldn’t count its chickens)

 Image: Nando's

Image: Nando's

2018 got off to a bad start for Britain’s chain restaurants. Back in January, Jamie’s Italian announced it would close 12 branches, having racked up debts of £71.5 million. Strada, Prezzo and Byron suffered similar casualties, with the increase in food import costs and decrease in consumer confidence (spurred by the prospect of Brexit) cited as playing a role. But amid the news of closures, failures and mounting debts, two restaurant brands — Nando's and Wagamama — emerged not only unscathed, but thriving [paywall].

From an offer perspective, the difference between these chains is clear. While Jamie’s, Strada & Prezzo blur into an indistinguishable tangle of mid-priced linguine, and Byron jostles with a barrage of gourmet burger joints, Nando’s and Wagamama occupy a less crowded space in the world food market. But there is also an argument to be made for the cultural traction that has played a part in the fate of these brands, and of Nando’s and Jamie’s in particular.

Jamie’s has seemingly fallen prey to the bland middle ground; just as in retail, where Tesco is losing share to both ALDI and Waitrose, brands that live in this mid-market space seem to be struggling. Jamie’s appears not to stand for anything at all, or at least not something people consider authentic. An Italian restaurant, fronted by a millionaire from Essex, claiming ‘carefully sourced ingredients’ while using the same suppliers as Wetherspoons, won’t cut it with an increasingly savvy British public concerned with provenance.

But what about Nando’s? It’s an unpretentious chicken shop with a Mozambique/ Portuguese twist and relaxed family atmosphere. On a Friday night in Nando’s you’ll see the democratising space the brand occupies; teenagers still in their school uniforms rub shoulders with mums feeding small children and young professionals having a pint with their quarter-chicken. The chain counts Prince William, Stormzy, and Bella Hadid among its clientele.  Part of Nando’s success lies in the fact that it’s all things to all people; a comfortable place you can get simple, flavoursome food at a reasonable price.

But it’s Nando’s organic incorporation into the British lexicon (think 2014’s ‘cheeky Nando’s’), its seemingly spontaneous celebrity endorsements and, most importantly, its open-armed acceptance by young urban Britain, that have made it into a cultural phenomenon. Nando’s has targeted the younger generation from the start; its Twitter feed (with 1.5m followers) features clips referencing GCSE revision, and has always welcomed teenagers in a way that many other restaurant spaces wouldn’t (with offers like bottomless drink re-fills). This connection with a younger generation in urban centres, combined with its association with chicken shop culture, has given Nando’s an edge of authenticity that a brand like Jamie’s could never have.

But it goes further than just good food and clever positioning; Nando’s occupies a place in popular culture that reaches beyond its immediate market. It has been fully embraced by UK grime artists; it’s mentioned in songs, tweets and Guardian articles about Chipmunk (“if chicken isn’t Caribbean or Nando’s, I can’t mess with that”). Nando’s took notice, and, with characteristic cheekiness, alluded to its cult status in its communications, while still retaining its family-friendly image. The coveted Nando’s Black Card (entitling the owner to free Nando’s) was allegedly given to a host of grime artists (and other celebrities); in 2016, they created the ‘Merky Burger’ in honour of Stormzy.

More recently, Nando’s has embraced its position within grime culture more fully. In January 2018 it launched a free in-restaurant music studio, and has recently released its first zine with Kurupt FM’s People Just Do Nothing on the cover. The magazine is filled with interviews with musicians & artists; the only reference to Nando’s the restaurant is a small logo, the iconic rooster in black silhouette on the back.

Nando’s was assimilated and endorsed by culture in a way it’s marketing team couldn’t have predicted. It responded, at first playfully, but now fully embracing grime and broader music culture in turn. But the world of music, and of grime specifically, is a tricky one for brands to navigate. Firstly, it's oversubscribed, and brands must do something truly creative to stand out. Publishing a zine and opening a recording studio may not be distinctive or radical enough to compete with the big sportswear brands currently operating in this space.

But perhaps a bigger risk for Nando’s is that engaging with this space means teetering on the edge of being ‘try-hard’. Other brands celebrated in grime music — North Face, for example — don’t reference their status in communications. North Face continues to be a brand about scaling mountains and it remains cool. What made Nando’s cool was its accessibility; a lack of pretention and a healthy dose of playfulness meant it was never seen as taking itself too seriously. The restaurant chain now walks a tightrope: by referring to its place within (grime) music so explicitly, it risks losing the authenticity that made it so appealing. Nando’s must always remember what made it great in the first place, and strive not to compromise that.

Giulia Spissu, Flamingo

Ben Wener