Mark Ritson: Wetherspoons ditching social media is brand leadership at its best

JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin has been criticised for closing the brand’s social media accounts, but it shows he’s brave enough to decide they don’t fit his target market or objectives.

social media
Picture: Stephen J Mason Photography

It’s been just over 24 hours since JD Wetherspoon made the shock announcement that it would immediately shut down its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages. “Rather than using social media,” Wetherspoons announced on Monday, “we will continue to release news stories and information about forthcoming events on our website (jdwetherspoon.com) and in our printed magazine – Wetherspoon News.”

In this social media age, such announcements are unheard of. Replacing social media with a website? And a magazine? Surely this is commercial suicide? Wetherspoons’ founder and chairman Tim Martin was told on BBC News on Monday that many in the business world had already said that “this was a mistake” and that “companies have got to have profiles on social media”. Martin’s response was to beam, bright eyed into the camera.

READ MORE: Wetherspoons should be applauded for starting from scratch on data

The news and Martin’s genial acceptance of it quickly sparked a debate, ironically on social media, about the true motivations behind the blanket ban. Was this a very clever publicity stunt? Would Wetherspoons return, in a second storm of publicity, to social media in a few weeks? Had Wetherspoons’ chairman, a vociferous supporter of Brexit, been caught sharing his social media campaign with Cambridge Analytica and was he now attempting to cover his own malfeasance? These, and even more lunatic suggestions, have abounded.

In truth, the reality is more humdrum and impressive. Wetherspoons dropped social media for three major reasons. First, it was a total waste of time. A “distraction” was how Martin described it on the BBC and you can see his point. Despite all the coverage exalting the 44,000 followers on Twitter and 100,000 on Facebook, the harsh reality is that organic relationships like this are almost worthless.

If you stack up the number of followers brands communicate with on social media and then compare it to their actual customer base it represents a channel of low, single-digit potential. Social media is, for all intents and purposes, social – designed for people and not brands. Digital advertising makes a lot of sense because we can ride on the coat tails of this social interaction, but people connecting with brands organically on social media was BS from the beginning.

No business impact

Let me illustrate with some data. The average Wetherspoons tweet in 2018 managed to garner a total of six retweets and four likes. Wetherspoons serves three million pints a week. “We were concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers,” Martin explained on Monday. “I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever.” You can see his point.

The second reason for the cessation of all social media activity is that Martin is a master of customer orientation. He would hate the title. Quite possibly laugh in my face at even the accusation. But it does not stop it from being true.

Martin is that rare and wonderful beast, a leader of a big company that still “walks the floor”. No big data. No artificial intelligence. No wank-trend agency to tell him what is going down with the customers. Martin does something all leaders in marketing should do, but almost never bother with. He goes down the pub.

Lots of them, actually. Martin tries to visit as many of his own establishments as he can. He likes to park his car on the other side of the town from his pubs. That makes no sense, until you realise why he does it. Martin likes to walk through the town, usually early evening, and just take in the state of the place and the toing and froing around him. I might call that ethnography, but again, Martin would shake his head in disgust.

The average Wetherspoons tweet in 2018 managed to garner a total of six retweets and four likes. Wetherspoons serves three million pints a week.

Martin knows his pubs. Knows his staff. Knows his customers. Knows how they currently think and feel about things. And he can position Wetherspoons accordingly to ensure that, like any great brand, his company stands for what his target customers want it to stand for.

At the moment, Big Tim’s antenna is picking up a great deal of distrust and unease with social media among his customers. “The people who aren’t on social media wish that their friends weren’t either, because they seem to be obsessed by it. And people who are on it feel they can’t get off it because they are addicted,” explained Martin.

In making the move, Martin was certain of publicity, but more importantly he was certain of publicity that would help bolster Wetherspoons’ position as a no-nonsense, working person’s boozer. In branding terms, the subsequent global coverage of his decision to cull social media across TV, news media and the internet is worth approximately eight million tweets that no-one was reading anyway.

Why social media was the wrong fit

The last reason Martin has done this is the most impressive. To understand the decision you have to appreciate why JD Wetherspoon is called JD Wetherspoon. The name derives from JD ‘Boss’ Hogg from the TV show the Dukes of Hazzard (ask your dad) and Martin’s old geography teacher, Mr Wetherspoon, who told a young Timothy that he would not amount to anything in adult life.

We can conclude two things from this origin story. First, Martin is extremely comfortable sticking two fingers all the way up. Second, he is also entirely happy to do things differently from others. These two factors – an innate sense of total go-fuck-yourself and comfort with the alternative path – are the two magical ingredients of differentiation. Not the business school version of differentiation which appears to consist of saying digital transformation a lot and writing ‘disruption’ on whiteboards, but the real version. The one that consists of ripping up the rulebook, burning it and then stomping off naked in a direction everyone else thought was not just impossible but ridiculous.

Having savoured Martin driving a big long stake through the heart of social media this week, however, let me also make a counter-point. Alongside those that think a lack of a Facebook page will mean immediate disaster for Wetherspoons (and its £830m revenues) there is a smaller group who think this move spells the start of the rejection of social media. Already several people have cited Wetherspoons’ decision as the start of a “push back” against digital media.

It does not.

What it means is that a very smart, very switched-on leader has worked out that when he looks at his target market, his product offering, his brand position and the objectives for the year ahead, he has concluded that social media does not fit.

By the same token there are a lot of brands out there that take the same look at an entirely different customer base, product, brand and set of objectives and conclude that Twitter or Instagram is the perfect tactic for them. That decision is just as smart as Martin’s decision to shut down his social media.

There is no ideal communications tool. No ratio of how much you should spend on ‘digital’ versus ‘traditional’ that can be applied to brands. There is no rule that you must have a Facebook presence or that you should get rid of it. All there is is strategy, and once you have one it becomes apparent that your tactics should work for you and you alone.

One man’s pint is another man’s poison. And you can buy both at your nearest Wetherspoons for £2.25.

Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next Marketing Week Mini MBA course from 24 April 2018. To book your place, sign up here.

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Comments
  • Sam Butler 17 Apr 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyable read. There are way too many brands and marketers out there obsessed with the disposition that social media is a must, and the savior of their business. Like you mentioned, a communications channel should be tailored to the brand and not other other way around. You can’t jam a square peg into a round hole. Inevitably, some target markets are suited to social media; further, identifying what social media outlets are most appropriate for a particular market is also an issue some marketers face – instead, they decide to whack their brand on every social media channel they can possibly find, thereby going for the machine gun spray approach and hope to hit a target.

  • Terry Childs 18 Apr 2018 at 8:15 am

    So to be clear, a pub chain that serves 3 million pints per week, offers prices for everyone and raises £15m for charity doesnt fit on social media. What nonsense, they simply didnt invest or craft a correct role for the brand. They will be back, how else do they intend to woo the next generation of drinkers – hopefully this time with a correct strategy.

  • Alan Charlesworth 18 Apr 2018 at 9:09 am

    Totally, totally agree with your comments*.

    Marketing on social media is ‘right’ for only a minority of organizations. Spend the budget on something with a return on investment.

    * With the exception of “Not the business school version of … ” — I don’t teach that in the business school I work in. Quite the opposite 🙂

  • Emma Radcliffe 18 Apr 2018 at 9:29 am

    Totally agree. When it is comes to social media you have to do it properly or not bother at all. A half-arsed, trying to fit it around other things, ‘not really sure what to post’ approach is going to do your business sod all good. And that is something that too many businesses still just don’t get.

  • Ed Smallman 18 Apr 2018 at 10:16 am

    Brilliant read.

  • Richard Stacy 18 Apr 2018 at 10:27 am

    If you use social media as a channel to push ‘content’ at your consumers, you are wasting your time – no matter what brand you are. If you use it as a way in which your consumers can talk to you – then it is hugely valuable. Brands should shut their social media mouths and open their social media ears.
    http://richardstacy.com/2016/01/27/the-content-delusion-why-almost-all-content-marketing-strategies-are-a-waste-of-time-and-money/

  • Eliza Adams 18 Apr 2018 at 10:34 am

    While I agree that a presence on social media might not garner them much business – nobody is choosing where to have their pint according to the best tweet of the week, let’s be honest – I do think it’s a mistake to strip away the opportunity for customers to communicate with the brand directly.
    Social media isn’t just a tool for marketing – it’s a tool for communication. Social. Clue’s right there in the name. And if your customers have something to say, it’s generally nice if you can reply to them. If they want to say “brilliant night” they’d appreciate a ‘thanks for coming, see you next time’ – and if they want to say ‘this place is a dive, I had a shite time and will never be back’ surely you want to be able to see that, find out why, and do something to make sure nobody else feels like that – and nobody else sees that as your reputation.

    Social media isn’t just about promotion – it’s about relationships, and reputation.

    If you aren’t there, giving your brand a face for conversations to engage with, someone else has the chance to take control of your reputation. And that really could spell trouble.

  • Pete Austin 18 Apr 2018 at 10:37 am

    Alcohol advertising is heavily regulated, so making sure that thousands of tweets complied with the rules must have been a nightmare. Good decision.

  • Kam Mistry 18 Apr 2018 at 11:02 am

    I think this was a great move. It really is a case of ‘horses for courses’ when it comes to marketing channels and doing what works for your business rather than just doing something because everyone else is doing it. JD Hogg would take his hat off to you!

  • Lee Grunnell 18 Apr 2018 at 1:39 pm

    Interested in the comments about brands pushing content on social media vs. customers using social media to talk to / engage with brands. What evidence do we have that people actually want to talk to their pub on Twitter & Facebook etc?

    • Richard Stacy 18 Apr 2018 at 7:48 pm

      They don’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a great deal from social listening. Or finding and nurturing the small community of people who could be seen as JDW ‘superfans’.

  • Dom Graham 18 Apr 2018 at 3:50 pm

    Anyone who’s ever been into a ‘Spoons knows that this decision will make zero difference to their core customer base. It would only be a loss to marketing (in general) if they were making really innovative and/or hilarious content. They weren’t. But that’s not JDW anyway; the brand has never about being clever or witty. The brand is a direct reflection of its chief. It’s about people buying cheap alcohol in a no-nonsense environment. Love JDW or hate JDW, they’re simply delivering a marketing strategy that’s authentic to their core clients, which is something a lot of companies forget to do.

  • Al King 19 Apr 2018 at 6:48 am

    “No big data. No artificial intelligence. No wank-trend agency to tell him what is going down with the customers. ” Classic Ritson. Thanks, I have a new hero.

  • andy brander 19 Apr 2018 at 9:10 am

    “There is no ideal communications tool. No ratio of how much you should spend on ‘digital’ versus ‘traditional’ that can be applied to brands. There is no rule that you must have a Facebook presence or that you should get rid of it. All there is is strategy, and once you have one it becomes apparent that your tactics should work for you and you alone.” Amen

  • Dave Tindall 19 Apr 2018 at 12:02 pm

    For me, what’s interesting and further proves Mark’s point is that I don’t recall seeing anywhere near this level of scrutiny either in the marketing world, or general media, when a brand has chosen to stop using another channel. A story on MW stating Brand X plans to move away from TV or Brand Y will no longer invest in direct mail would never garner this sort of attention. As marketers we should always strive to be channel neutral, using those which best suit our strategy and target audience, not those which are new, shiny or endorsed by a “wank-trend agency.”

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