Pizza Express refresh what made them famous

I was lucky enough to be invited to the opening of Pizza Express' "living lab" restaurant last night by Emma Woods, the marketing director. Emma and the team have been working on re-inventing the decor, food and service for the company, and have brough all this to life in a prototype of the future Pizza Express. And pretty bloody damn cool it is too.

It was nice to hear that Emma was inspired by our blog to remember and refresh what made Pizza Express famous. Rejuvenating the brand is crucial, given the intense competion in the "casual dining" market from other new pizza chains like Zizzi and Ask, and a host of other concepts such as Giraffe and The Gourmet Burger Company.

Here's a few learnings:

1. Use experts for foresight

Emma didn't just rely on consumer feedback for ideas. Instead, she formed a dream team of experts from different fields as a potent source of insight and ideas. The team included designers, Italian chefs, a theatre director, a professor of acoustics, the co-founder of Mumsnet, a DJ, a conversation expert and a fashion designer.

2. Refresh what made you famous

The new Pizza Express is about rejuvenation rather than revolution. Its about taking the key elements of the mix and making each bit better. For example, I like taking my kids to watch the guys making pizzas, but the cooking area tended to be hidden at the back. In the new place its centre stage to create theatre.

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On the food side, pizza is still the star. But now there are Pizzetine, tiny little tapas style pizzas. And exciting special, limited edition pizzas inspired by Italian ingredients, such as ricotta cheese and Calabrese sausage. And some really scrummy deserts have been added, including dough balls you dip in Nutella. Yum.

But perhaps the most impressive upgrades are on the customer experience side. There are lots of nice, curvy shaped booths that are inviting and visually interesting. And building off learning that noise in restaurants gets in the way of conversation, the new Pizza Express has clever ways of reducing this problem. Above each booth is a clever dome thing that soaks up noise. And pizza base-shaped discs on the ceiling help with this too.

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Emma even invited back the designer of the first Pizza Express back in 1965, Enzo Apicella, to be part of the team. He designed a lovely mural in the outdoor eating area. He's in action in the picture below:

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The only bit I'm less sure about is the visual identity. The new design keeps the pizza shaped holding device. But I wonder if the hand-written style isn't trying too hard to be casual and laid back, and looses some of the cachet that Pizza Express has versus the newer upstarts in the market?

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3. Think less and do more by prototyping

One of our hot topics is the need for marketers to "think less and do more". Cut down on the theory and the concepts and the focus groups and the quant screening… and do more prototyping to bring ideas to life. Emma and the team have done this brilliantly with their living lab. And in doing so also they have used it as a generator of buzz, by creating a blog on it and having a launch party.

So, all in all, a great example of rembering and refreshing what made a brand famous. Going back to the roots of the brand on the one hand, looking to the future on the other. And then bringing the rejuvenated brand to life in a prototype, to test and prove it based on real experience.

If you are in South West London, its worth a trip to Richmond to check out the new Pizza Express (and try those dough balls) here.