Café Rouge: adding va va voom to a tired brand

Café Rouge is a chain of French-style bistros that I thought was well and truly tired out. The brand had been around for almost 25 years, and looked it. And I wondered if the whole thing was perhaps a relic of the past that was about to die.

However, the new Café Rouge I drove past last week changed my mind. The outlet I saw is one of four to be revamped so far, with plans to upgrade the whole chain of 125 over the next three years. My bet is that like-for-like sales in the new outlets will be stronger.

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Here are a few take-outs from this revitalisation case.

1. Is the underlying concept still relevant?

With any brand in decline, the first thing to do is establish if the problem is due to a fudemental issue with the propostion, or to executional problems. In the case of Café Rouge, I would guess people today are just as interested in a French bistro style eating place than they were back in 1989. If anything, with increased travel owing to low cost airlines, there might be even more of an appetite for this sort of offer. And whilst the chain was a bit dusty, I expect people still had a pretty good image of the brand.

In contrast, the future of Little Chef looks bleaker. I posted back in 2009 about attempts to revive this chain of roadside restaurants best known for its "olympic" cooked breakfast. The test outlet created with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal had some initial success. But the brand proposition of traditional, fatty, heavy, mainly fried British food is less relevant for today, and the brand has a lot of negative baggage. The chain was recently put up for sale, and is exected to be bought and re-branded by someone like Costa Coffee.

2. Understand how the world has moved on

The risk with any business is being too inwardly focused on day-to-day operations. Perhaps Café Rouge was managing to do OK for a while through smart cost savings. However, look at the outside world and you would get a different picture. Simply walking up and down a high street would show you two things. First, a whole set of new eating places that simply didn't exist in 1989, including coffee chains like Starbucks. Second, more established chains have invested in re-vamping their outlets and menus, including Pret a Manger and even Mc Donald's.

These changes meant that to have a long-term future Café Rouge had to revamp its offer to be fresher and more contemporary, or risk being left behind.

3. Refresh what made you famous

Brand revitalisation requires you to remember what made you famous, and then refresh it. Café Rouge is a good example of this. The overall colour scheme of red and white has been retained, but with more emphasis on the white for a fresher, cleaner look. The menu of French classic bistro food has been kept, but with a more focused and less cluttered offer.

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And here's CEO John Derkach tallking about the interior look and feel: "Fundamentally Café Rouge needed to be made more contemporary and cleaner in terms of design lines, but also keep the charm and idiosyncrasies. For example, the stuff that was on the wall (French memorabilia) is still there, but it is not everywhere, it is grouped together."

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In conclusion, Café Rouge looks like a good example of how to breathe fresh life into a brand that is fundamentally sound but a little tired. I will pop in for a croque monsieur and a glass of red soon and report back.