Tim Youngman: Little Chef – the product life cycle and the death of a brand

Could the Little Chef be resigned to history?

Could the Little Chef be resigned to history? - Credit: PA

A few readers may be familiar with the product life cycle concept.

This describes the stages a product goes through from when it was first thought of, to launch, growth, maturity, decline and in some instances death. Death of a product is normally caused by such causes as technological obsolescence, massive public distrust or reaction caused by a scandal and in some instances they have just had their time.

One such brand which is facing such a fate and which holds deep memories for many, including myself, is Little Chef.

Little Chef was founded by a gentleman called Sam Alper who actually ran a caravn making business in east London. He launched it after trips to America, enjoying its roadside diners which gave a much different experience to the road side cafés in the UK. From his first restaurant in Reading in 1958 grew a British institution that created such entries into the British psyche as the Olympic Breakfast and Jubilee Pancakes.

The iconic Fat Charlie sign dominated the roadsides of Britain for 50 years but from its heyday in the 1980’s consumer habits changed. Roads became better, as did cars and long journeys therefore became less arduous and stops became more infrequent and shorter.

Petrol stations offered coffee and decent sandwiches, well they offered sandwiches. Fast food outlets opened on the roadside offering a modern quick option for the weary driver. The words “lets stop for a happy meal” started to have an impact on families tired of bickering children in the back of the car.

Since 2000 the Little Chef business has been bought and sold a number of times and also been in administration. Each time outlets were closed and its grip on the roadside catering industry loosened. It tried different strategies such as in 2004 hiring a brand agency who thought the problem was Fat Charlie and re-drew him as a thinner version promoting 15,000 complaints. Some success came in 2009 when Heston Blumenthal updated the menus complete with Channel 4 documentary but this was a drop against a tide.

Most Read

Now the business is once again up for sale but today it only has 78 outlets from its heyday of over 400 in the Eighties with 67 outlets closing last year alone. Bids have been received from McDonalds, Starbucks, Costa and Kentucky Fried Chicken any of whom, if successful, are expected to close and rebrand to their own brands.

So let’s return to the product life cycle. Numerous books have been written on the subject with many more on how products and brands can avoid the latter terminal stage. Many brands have managed to avoid death through revitalising strategies anything from brand extentions, re-positioning and even simply changing your packaging. One of the best often quoted examples is Oil of Olay once a Mother’s Day gift favourite and now a multi-million, multi-brand extension cosmetic powerhouse.

Sometimes though even if you change the packaging and adjust what’s underneath, if its not what the consumer wants then the inevitable will happen. So it looks certain that in a very short time the iconic roadside image of Little Chef will be consigned to brand history. Without the occasional death there would be no new life. So next time you stop at the services please raise your Costa or Starbucks as you eat your M&S or Waitrose sandwich in memory.

Tim Youngman is director of marketing for Archant www.about.me/timyoungman

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter