THE PIZZA OF INNOVATION

I'm a huge fan of Pizza Express (for those non UK readers Pizza Express was the first sit down pizza restaurant chain in the UK established in the 60s). Both my sons were born soon after Pizza Express visits!

And despite now having a growing family we still love Pizza Express because over the past few years they have stepped up their innovation and much of it is based on really good insight into their customers.

After a recent visit a few lessons struck me on what pizzas reveal about customer led innovation:

1. Understand the desired experience not just the product attributes. My wife and I still like to spend an hour or so in a restaurant having a simple dinner. That hasn't changed now we have three kids. We've learnt, as many parents before us have, that the art to keeping that hour pain-free is keeping the kids occupied. Increasingly kid-friendly restaurants dole out the crayons and paper but Pizza Express have taken it to another level. They have tailored their kids menu to be multiple small courses over the space of an hour. So you quickly get garlic bread or dough balls for the kids to munch, then comes a small pizza, then an ice cream, then a really cute idea – the Bambicino – which is a frothy cappucino style milk. This means whilst we eat a starter and pizza the kids meal is paced to keep them occupied. Pizza Express have understood what I want and, more importantly, what my kids want so that we all get a good experience.

2. A well tried foundation is the best starting place for new ideas. Why is the pizza such an enduring food? Because it is a solid foundation from which to add and adapt. This is true for much innovation (and indeed solid incrementalism) – start with a good process or product, understand what is great with it, and then improve. A strong foundation also allows you to engage the customer through customisation…

3. Customisation was, is, and always will be a powerful way to engage. From its earliest origins the pizza has been a customisation engine. One of the reasons almost everyone can enjoy a pizza is that the solid foundation allows personal expression and the adaptation to personal taste and creativity. This is what I love about Apple products, a great base product facilitating creativity, for example, through the music you put on them or what you create on them. Dell were the masters of mass customisation but on attributes that were intrinsic rather than 'tasty'. Only now are they realising that allowing customisation on the surface is as important.

4. Innovation isn't always about adding things – it can also be about taking things away. Most companies that I've worked with start from a foundation of their current product or process and then think about features or benefits that can be added in order to innovate. This isn't a bad path to innovation but it can be illuminating to think about what to take away from the product. Pizza Express have a new product called the Leggera. This is a pizza with the middle taken out with salad replacing it. This fills a need for those who want a lower calorie option. I admired Vodafone when they launched their Simple proposition. A simple phone and tariff for those that wanted just a phone that worked like a traditional phone not a computer. Dyson took away the vacuum cleaner bag for a better experience. You don't always have to add.

5. Different occasions are sources of new volume, canibalisation can be a red-herring. In the last few years Pizza Express have launched a line of retail pizzas. I bet this gave them some sleepless nights. I can hear the discussions now: surely this would canibalise their take out business or, even worse, their core restaurant business (especially in these more difficult times as people trade down)? Perhaps it would damage the brand because they couldn't gaurantee product quality? Overall I think it works well and from what my friends in the supermarket industry tell me it has been a hit. It has provided a new occasion for loyal users to use the brand and allowed those who don't visit the restaurants to buy into the franchise in a different way. I bet frequency of consuming a Pizza Express product is way up since their introduction. Starbucks are now launching into instant coffee with their VIA product. I suspect they had lots of similar debates. If the product is good I bet it will slowly creep into the Starbucks loyalists' non-Starbucks coffee consumption and potentially open the brand up to non-users.

What do you think? How do you innovate? Got any lessons to share? Please comment below. Feel free to share this post with other innovators (or pizza lovers!)

Justin

Email me: justin@basini.com
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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Matt October 26, 2009, 12:23 pm

    Hey Justin,

    Liked this post, especially as I am a bit of a pizza lover myself. I'd be interested in your thoughts on pizza innovation with Pizza Express vs. others like Pizza Hut or Dominoes?

    In your opinion, is Pizza Express especially good at consumer led innovation or is it a sub-category phenomenon?

    Reply
  • MarkM November 30, 2009, 9:47 pm

    Hey Justin,

    I liked this post, especially the last piece around cannabalization. If you can create a product/service that will eat into your existing business, someone else can (and will!) as well. If you don't act on your innovation it's only a matter of time before you find yourself losing ground to someone else.

    As you can tell from my excessive use of the letter z, I'm now back in the USA. Hope all is well with you.

    Regards,
    Mark Mattern

    Reply
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