For some consumers, the name Byron will now forever be synonymous with a plague of locusts and cockroaches. At the end of July, the premium burger chain endured a nightmare few days when it emerged it had co-operated in a controversial Home Office immigration sting against its own staff that resulted in 35 arrests. Formerly loyal customers expressed dismay on social media, while activists protested with a #BoycottByron hashtag and by releasing the aforementioned live insects at two of the company’s London restaurants, forcing them to temporarily shut down.
Byron’s reputation was dragged through the mud by a succession of negative headlines that left its PR and marketing department scrambling to react. Data from social media monitoring company Brandwatch finds there have been over 4,500 mentions of the immigration controversy on social channels and of those that express an opinion on the story, 90% are negative.
Responding to a question from Marketing Week about how the brand plans to rebuild its reputation, a Byron spokeswoman insisted “it’s very much business as usual”. She said: “Our restaurant teams have been very resilient – they understand what happened and have been very supportive. Likewise, customers are pragmatic and have continued to visit just as they did before.”
She added that the brand has “lots of new initiatives” planned over the next few months that it hopes will “surprise and charm” customers in the run up to half term and Christmas. It is also pressing ahead with plans to open four new restaurants.
The 65-strong chain was founded in 2007 and has led the way for the current generation of ‘fast casual’ dining brands popular among city-dwelling professionals. Before the Home Office raid Byron could credibly claim to be a cult, aspirational brand – a status famously enhanced when then-Chancellor George Osborne tweeted a picture of his Byron burger takeaway in 2013. Now Byron must carry with it an association with illegal immigration and perceived treachery against its staff.
— HUCK (@HUCKmagazine) July 31, 2016
The company’s woes this summer raise the question of whether ‘coolness’ is a fleeting quality that brands struggle to maintain over the long-term. In its efforts to grow quickly and disrupt a market dominated by cheaper alternatives like McDonald’s and Burger King, it appears Byron may have lost sight of its employment practices and internal culture, as well as its PR strategy.
This problem is not exclusive to Byron – rather it is a challenge facing all so-called disruptive brands. Last month, takeaway delivery company Deliveroo suffered its own negative headlines after dozens of its couriers demonstrated outside its London office in protest against a new wage plan that sought to move them from a payment-per-hour model to a payment-per-delivery structure. Deliveroo responded by stating it will give couriers the option to join the new pay scheme or persist with the old one.
The protests represent one of the first big stumbling blocks for the brand, which has grown rapidly across 12 countries since launching in the UK in 2013. In many ways it calls to mind driver and rider protests that have afflicted taxi service Uber and its recently launched food delivery service UberEats. Both Deliveroo and Uber are able to offer cheap and convenient services by using a ‘gig economy’ business model based on casual, on-demand labour, but this has led to accusations of slack or unfair employment practices.
Data from Brandwatch shows there have been more than 5,200 social media mentions of the Deliveroo London protests, though only 50% of those expressing an opinion on the story were overtly negative. Key terms within these negative mentions include “return to Victorian Britain” and “Slaveroo”, reports Brandwatch.
Deliveroo’s slick, fashionable image was undermined in a similar way to Byron during the protests when UK managing director Dan Warne was booed and heckled by protesting riders outside its London office and in front of the world’s media. Earlier this month, the company announced a rebrand: a sign that it hopes to move on from the controversy and press on with its global growth plans.
Gigging with a purpose
Angela Podmore, managing director at PR consultancy Kinetic Communications, believes the problems encountered by Byron and Deliveroo are down to a lack of core brand values within each business. “If you asked either of those companies to explain why they are in business, I think they would struggle,” she says. “They haven’t got a backstory.”
She praises companies that empower their staff to properly represent their brands, arguing that businesses that fail to invest in a strong internal culture will suffer in the long term. “The Deliveroo guy on his moped can make or break the experience,” she suggests. “If he turns up in a bad mood to deliver your pizza, it doesn’t matter how good the pizza is.”
Some of the biggest gig economy businesses such as Uber and Airbnb have sought to place greater attention on their core values in recent years. At Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference last year, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick suggested that developing an effective communications strategy was one of the biggest challenges facing his company as it continues to expand at a rapid rate and attract publicity, not all of which is positive. The company rebranded in February to put more emphasis on its role as a transport enabler in cities around the world.
Sam Hollis, head of planning at communications group Good Agency, believes that while the rise of the gig economy has led to major changes in the way that consumers interact with brands, having a strong social purpose is still vital. “There are lots of organisations out there that are very good at giving consumers what they want, but most of them have a transactional relationship with their consumers,” he says.
“They have the product [that consumers] want at the price they want and they get it to them on time, but if someone else comes along that does it better or cheaper, they’ll leave them. Building belief with audiences comes from the combination of giving people everything they need on the one hand, but connecting that in a more emotional way with shared values about what that brand is doing outside of just making money.”
Hollis argues that a brand’s ability to remain ‘cool’ in the eyes of consumers is dependent on the nature of the scandal or controversy that they endure. In the case of Byron, he notes that the strength of feeling among large swathes of the population about immigration – both for and against – could prove damaging for the chain in the long-term. “It’s a really difficult one to predict in this case,” he says.
Ultimately, he argues that transparency is the best recourse for PR and marketing professionals striving to rebuild the reputations of once-cool brands. “These days you can’t hide from it,” he says. “It’s not a case of just shutting down the hatches and riding it out because it’s relentless in this social media age.”