In the current challenging environment, togetherness is everything. Hearing from peers and sharing best practice can make for a better understanding of the world and our place in it. Crucially it can act as inspiration to think and do different.

As a member of MCA, the intelligence house for the eating out market, Jellybean not only enjoys full access to a class-leading collection of insight and data, we’re also privy to a number of key networking events such as last week’s Marketing Conference, an annual affair with insightful speakers amassed from both sides of the operator/supplier fence, this time adding lawyers, dons, digital innovators and our very own Dear Leader, Susan. But more on that later.

First up to address the 100-strong room of delegates at London’s Cumberland Hotel was Marc Frankl, F&B Director for contract caterer Amadeus. Working primarily in the midlands, the company’s ethos of Britishness and locality – 80% of its supply chain is sourced within 30 miles of each site – is a great example of B&I catering leading from the front. Marc talked around challenges over salt – “Small changes like not pre salting chips before sale” and calories – “It’s important not to preach and to offer choice to those who want reduced calories”. He also addressed the challenge of the sugar tax and the requirements of those looking to reduce their intake. Amadeus is working towards a 50% reduction by 2020, with the introduction of more sugar alternatives, dried fruit and honey, while it was, he said, the first caterer to stop offering Red Coke as a frontline beverage choice – a move that will shave 20 million calories from their menus YOY, but one that has, happily, not adversely impacted sales.

Working for Coca-Cola, it’s fair to say that sugar has been on the next speakers’ radar for quite some time, and Kelly Healing, Senior Manager at Coke’s European arm, came equipped with her company strategy to navigate the choppy waters of the forthcoming levy and operate in a “changing world”. She revealed that 70% of the UK is concerned that they are less healthy than the previous generation, with 92% looking to reduce sugar. In the face of such stark insight, Coca-Cola has pledged that all of its future innovation will be around low sugar alternatives. On the subject of Red Coke, Kelly said that the company has no plans to reformulate its iconic original. Much like Marc she spoke of consumer choice and nudging people into better habits. As a global conglomerate, Coca Cola doubtless has its part to play in the education game around smarter choices, but she did add that, following the introduction of its Freestyle machines in outlets such as Five Guys, diners, faced with a wealth of over 100 bespoke flavours, are actively seeking out less sugary options.

Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne of Genius Foods rounded off a triumvirate of speakers dedicated to health and wellbeing. She revealed that the gluten-free category is growing at an astonishing 29% YOY and has now reached £1bn in value, taking in both retail and foodservice, the latter accounting for a market share of £100m. Lucinda talked about the travails of trying to remove gluten from those products reliant on it as a binding agent – “My hair used to be black, it’s now grey!” and pilloried those companies who use ‘gluten-free’ as a marketing tool when they are selling products which are naturally free of the allergen. In light of such wholesale market growth, she suggested that ‘gluten-free’ is fast approaching normalisation, sounding a warning that ignoring it as a viable category could prove highly detrimental to business.

As far as tough times go Charlie McVeigh, CEO & Founder of the Draft House pub group, reckons that the pub industry is proving more than resilient to the headwinds experienced by those in the food business. He wasn’t smug, more relieved that pubs – “Those entropic hubs of indolence and decadence, places to get away” had been happily dodging a few bullets of late. He sighted the challenge of Deliveroo – of those businesses in thrall to its growth in popularity, often at the detriment of their own footfall – as the key difference between pubs and restaurants – “The experience of escape, of getting away – that’s something you can’t recreate at home”. He explained the ethos behind the Draft House as “great beer, good food interesting people” before paraphrasing Danny Meyer, the US restaurant guru behind concepts like Shake Shack, who epitomised, in Charlie’s eyes, the key to hospitality Valhalla – “At birth you get a hug, eye contact and a good drink – you then spend the rest of your life trying to recreate that moment. If we can imbue in customers that same primal warmth and welcome–that’s the key to them coming back time and time again.”

A quick coffee break and we were back in the room, firstly hearing from Jackie Clarke, a Reader in Marketing & Consumer Behaviour at Oxford Brookes University, whose address took in current academic marketing theory around the science of co-creation – a strategy that brings different parties together in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome. Second up was Russell Danks, Partnership Director for Greene King Pub Partners who was talking about innovation through its leased and tenanted operation. He talked about a sea change in the company’s attitude to its publicans, shifting from a ‘master/tenant’ setup to a more symbiotic relationship built on tenets of partnership – “We simply can’t exist without one and other, so there must be trust”. In adopting this approach, Russell likened the operation to one of championing mini start-up businesses, empowering and actively encouraging tenants to do different. “Innovation can often be fast-tracked through leased and tenanted operators – there’s little brand reputational risk, you can be much more nimble, and many of the landlords love this approach – we’re essentially creating start-ups as we go.”

Partnership was very much top of mind in the next part of the conference – a panel discussion on the challenges of marketing through the supply chain. As the leading foodservice agency and a friend of MCA, our MD, Susan, was invited to impart some 17 years of market experience, talking alongside Catherine Hinchcliff, Head of Corporate Marketing for Bidfood and Emma Holden, Marketing Coordinator for Country Range Group. Susan talked up the importance of partnership between agency, brand and wholesaler – “In our experience, the most successful brands are those that work in partnership with their wholesalers to support any listing through savvy marketing, PR and social media to galvanise and inspire a sales force” while Catherine talked about the operational challenges faced by end users – “[end users are]…under strain from uncontrollable market fluctuations and overheads – margins are something they very much can control, so your pricing strategy, as a wholesaler, is so important.”

Post lunch, we got to meet the innovators behind some of the UK’s most exciting start-ups, imparting how they have been able to garner so much attention for their businesses using only shoestring budgets, the power of social media and, of course, some irresistible brand savvy thrown in for good measure. Eve Bugler is the Founder & Managing Director of unashamed kebab fusion concept, BabaBoom. Rather than being a seasoned marketer, Eve was an ultra-runner before making the leap into food, full time. Her company, based around a wildly successful but small space in Battersea Rise and a delivery kitchen in East London, is looking to expand via crowdfunding in 2018. She confessed the success was very much organic and based around the simple tenet of giving others joy – [if you’re thinking of going into food]…ask yourself where’s the joy? How can you make consumers happy and feel special?”. Examples of this permeate throughout BabaBoom’s quite brilliant marketing efforts, whether it’s ‘Medal Monday’s’ – simply bring a medal to the restaurant, tell them how you won it and receive a free side, or the ‘Power Hour’ – 60 minutes to drink as many frozen margaritas as you can, timed by an alarm clock that sits on your table. Genius.

Yumchaa’s Marketing & Communications manager, Chloe O’Hare-Carroll, talked about the power of video, used to great effect to make the cafe & tea shop’s miraculous colour-changing Blue Voodoo tea blend go viral on social media and in the national press. Marco Husak, co-founder of Leeds-based Indian café and craft beer emporium, Bundobust concurred, adding: “Video is an incredible tool to use, we’re investing in more video to give us a stream of content for social media, along with photography. We encourage our team to take pictures and to create content that’s authentic – it doesn’t have to be expensive.”

Helen Slaven, chief commercial officer for Eagle Eye Solutions, was then on hand to talk around the use of data and digital platforms to drive footfall, spend and loyalty with the mobile phone as medium – “People should be encouraged to use their phones in restaurants, not just for food pictures, but for feedback, loyalty schemes and offers”, while Jonathan McDonald Senior Associate, Charles Russell Speechleys, discussed the impending doom of The General Data Protection Regulation and how brands can best prepare for its implementation.

The day was rounded off by a panel discussion with Megan Burton-Brown, Marketing Manager for Tortilla Mexican Grill, Jenny McPhee, Head of Brand for The Alchemist Bar & Restaurant and Paul Hurley Founder of Dum Dum Donuts, with the latter playing expertly to the crowds by having boxes of his gourmet doughnuts hand delivered to each table during the session. Savvy marketing you might say. On the outside, we were presented with three contrasting businesses, each in the ascendancy, but as time went on, there was definitely a pattern to their methods which meant that success was no fluke. On the subject of social media: each agreed that it should be kept to a small group of likeminded operatives to run, on complaints: “Kindness and generosity is the key – if they didn’t like a doughnut, give them 12 that they will like”, on working with other brands: “We can bounce off each other – there doesn’t need to be this veil of secrecy”, and on customers: “Honest communication is everything – take them along for the ride, offer them something new and they will keep coming back”.

And on that note, we parted ways, inspired to do different and with a hankering for something savoury following untold doughnut intake. Thank you to the always brilliant MCA team for another great event.