Founder Mark Lilley on building a brand and the power of a free lunch
Lunchtime in central London – there’s nothing like it. Deceptively homely chain outlets are sprinkled generously from Holborn to Soho, Oxford Street to Trafalgar and Covent Garden. It seems that the UK’s time-pressed population of office workers can’t get enough freshly made, conveniently located food. One can’t walk for more than a few seconds before coming across another Pret A Manger, EAT, or Leon. Abokado entered this crowded market in 2004 and has carved out a niche for itself with its low calorie blend of green things and sushi. LBB Editor, Gabrielle Lott caught up with founder Mark Lilley to find out more about building his brand through word of mouth.
LBB> Can you tell me a bit about the origins of Abokado and its name?
ML> The first shop opened in 2004 in Covent Garden. I had been working in the city but didn't enjoy my work. People were being made redundant all around me, so I thought it’d be a good time to pack my bags. I’d just got married, so my wife Lindsay and I decided to go backpacking for a year. She was catching a tan and relaxing - the things I should have been doing - but I was busy writing business plans, working out what I was going to do when I came back.
I’d always been interested in food and had always wanted to run my own business. In Sydney we were surrounded by healthy sushi takeaway bars, and there was nothing like that in London back then. The familiar high street names that you see today didn't exist in the form that they’re now in. A light bulb switched on – I figured that if it worked there, it should work in London, so I brought the idea back.
The name is the Japanese for avocado. The Japanese element obviously relates to sushi, which is part of our product range. We also wanted the branding to involve green because there weren’t many businesses in the food sector using it as a brand colour. Green has the right connotations – friendly, healthy, natural, organic. We were also able to get the domain name – simple things that are actually very hard to do these days.
LBB> How would you categorise Abokado as a brand?
ML> I find it easier to describe what we do – we offer an incredible range of fresh and healthy food. The brand itself is fun. We think that fun is a very important element of the business, and something that a lot of businesses seem to have forgotten about.
We like to think that our customers leave our stores with full tummies and feeling good about what they've eaten, and that is an enjoyable experience as well. People describe us as quirky, but I don't like that word – however we do try to do things differently to mainstream operators within our sector. We’re youthful; the new kid on the block.
LBB> You’ve been expanding quite a lot recently. Part of that expansion is through word of mouth and the free lunches that you offer. Can you tell us a bit more about your marketing strategy?
ML> We don’t really do proper marketing – we’re quite old fashioned like that. We rely on word of mouth; it’s what has always driven our business. We look at the key players in our market, the much larger operators that are really successful – they don't really do marketing or advertising, they just deliver a consistent experience day-in-day-out, offer a little bit more than the customer is expecting and then let the customer do the rest. It’s all about people coming into our stores, going back to the office, telling their workmates about us. It’s viral.
We offer free lunches when we open a new store. We launched a new outlet on Wednesday on Byward Street and dished out around 400-500 free lunches. It was pretty full on.
LBB> You have people queuing around the street corners…
ML> It’s brilliant. Two or three years ago we saw a couple of the burrito operators do this for the first time, and it generated a lot of press, huge queues and loads of social media interest. It costs us very little to do. It’s just a way of announcing to the world that we’ve opened. We’ve found that it completely changes the opening performance of those stores. The first time we did it for a store it brought our sales levels forward by a year.
LBB> How do you stay true to the company’s moto – ‘Live your life, love our food’?
ML> This is probably a neater way of addressing the question of what kind of brand we are. When we first started the business, my wife and I didn't understand brands. We had a name but we didn't have a strapline; it was a very different business compared with how it is now.
About three years ago we got a proper brand consultancy in because we knew we had a great product. The sales were good but the brand didn't really work. We sat down and did a lot of brainstorming. The phrase that came out was ‘joie de vivre’. A girl doing a handstand was one of the first images we generated. It’s fun, quite sexy and gives you nice warm feelings when you see it. It reminds you of holidays, it’s healthy and quite aspirational. That was then incorporated into the ‘k’ in Abokado.. We had come full circle. We knew the brand was about ‘joie de vivre’, racing the day, being active, running, cycling and eating healthy food. I guess that’s encapsulated in the strapline.
How do we stay true to it? Mostly through our new product decisions. We work on new products for two or three months because they have got to deliver what our customers want. They’ve got to be relatively low calorie, low fat, highly nutritious and freshly made. We recognise it’s critical that everything we do has to enforce the brand promise, so we retain credibility.
LBB> Do you have any intentions to expand outside of the UK?
ML> Well we’ve got our hands full here at the moment. We have 13 stores open now and I plan to get to 24 by the end of this year, doubling in size. I think we’ll manage it –central London alone could handle 100 outlets. We’ve looked outside of London, in some of the regional cities, but there really is no need for it. It’s a little bit too risky right now and would be a distraction. At the moment I can leave the office and walk between all twelve stores. Being able to have that level of control over what we do is a massive benefit.
Having said that, I see no reason why we shouldn't be in the States one day. New York is crying out for something like this. There’s nothing like it out there, which I think is extraordinary. You expect the Americans to be ahead of the game, but they’re just not. So, can I see us in New York? Yeah. Is it on our agenda at the moment? No.
LBB> What does keeping the company as a family business bring to it as a product?
ML> We've been private equity-backed for about two-and-a-half years, so we’re not strictly a family business. I still run the business and I will continue to as long as I’m involved at this level. Our ethos hasn't changed in those two and a half years at all. If I hadn’t have told our management team about being private equity-backed, then they wouldn't have noticed any differences in the way the business is. So for as long as I’m involved, the culture will remain as it is.