The price of a J D Wetherspoon pint will be the cheapest within a ten minute walk of where you’re stood. Whether or not this adage is entirely true, the pub chain has created a brand of cheap-and-cheerfulness that has have left its competition in the gutter. Could this partly account for why its chairman Tim Martin announced this week that all 900 plus of the chain’s social media accounts -mainly facebook pages but also its corporate twitter and Instagram accounts- have been deactivated? The move is clearly a stunt designed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom that leveraging social is a crucial element of a brand’s customer engagement.
Tim Martin Luther nailed myriad theses at the door of social media. It’s used to troll and intimidate MPs (as if Leave-eu, of which Wetherspoon’s chairman was a major contributor, was the paragon of civil discourse); it’s a cause of public disorder (says the man who sells cheap booze); its distracts from social interaction (Wetherspoons nevertheless retains its large footprint on the Cloud wifi network); and perhaps most tellingly of all, its value to the business isn’t evident. Why give the public an official platform to vent bile at receiving chips instead of rings or spreading rumours about deep fried jacket potatoes? The workload in manning these nuisance channels simply isn’t worth it. As if straight from the Ryan Air playbook, Martin is saying if you’ve got a problem go find a cheaper option. No doubt other brands -our much maligned rail operators, for example- share these frustrations: might they be next to call last orders on social?
Does Martin have a point? Let’s give him a half. The value of social is often oversold by digital agency types, as if pumping out content on facebook will be the sole silver bullet. Influencers can be a demanding lot to work with and if you dare question their power, as the Dublin hotelier Paul Stenson did when he refused to give a vlogger free accommodation in return for a mention, you’ve picked yourself a public fight. Despite the scepticism from the likes of Martin Sorrell online continues to soak up advertising budget; that Sir Martin no longer calls the shots at WPP can in part be read as a boon to the digital evangelists.
Yet like anything else, strategic use of social is nothing to be dismissed. Greggs, a brand with a similarly no-nonsense proposition to the pub chain, has developed a playful tone on twitter (their account has 140k followers, whereas the now defunct Wetherspoons had only 40k). With their agencies they have used social and stunts in a layered way to earn coverage, joining up traditional media strategies with viral content. Greggs The Baker and their starchy delicacies have become lodged in the national consciousness, despite the fact that it is more dispenser of defrosted snacks than aromatic boulangerie. Much of this is down to how the brand has tapped into what the herd wants. Social media, for all of its ills, remains a great platform for harnessing fan love, whereas mainstream media helps take you over the line and catalyse wider interest.
Wetherspoons has equal claims to institutional status. Its distinctive carpets have a cult following (and their own unofficial twitter account). Its meal deals -from Mexican Monday to Thursday Curry Club- are famous across the land and commemorated in song and poetry. Yet rather than embracing the following the chain has tended to be baffled by it. Tim Martin, whose profile was boosted by his public support for the Leave campaign, clearly prefers channels he can control, such as the monthly pub magazine which has morphed into the Brexit equivalent of the New European. Ironically when Brexit kicks in Wetherspoons may have a problem on its hands as potential rising food prices put pressure on the chain’s low prices. Should it main selling point start to become less potent and customers walk elsewhere Martin may wish he had sent out a few more friend requests.