You may well have already heard about The Shed at Dulwich and seen the video. If you haven’t seen the video, you need to, right now, before we go any further or this isn’t going to make much sense. I suspect that my awareness of The Shed at Dulwich puts me into the Late Majority, but hopefully not the Laggards. I suspect I am a little late to this party, but hopefully I may have a different take on it to what has already been said.
To summarise for those without 18 minutes to spend speculatively watching a video which they might feel may turn out to be a waste of their time, The Shed at Dulwich was the spoof restaurant created by Oobah Butler, a sometime paid writer of fake restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor. Six months after its “creation” in 2017, it became the No. 1 rated and hottest restaurant in London, without ever having actually served a meal.
There are a few different ways of approaching this. The first and most important is to take the whole story for its entertainment value. It is pants-wettingly funny and this was surely the primary aim – to have some fun. From the fake ham hock (Oobah’s foot) to the blind-folded diners stumbling past the rubbish bins, the ridiculous hat he wears to a Skype meeting with a PR agency, to DJ Sambiance nodding sagely to his tape of restaurant sounds, it’s all classic comedy. Yet the most common angle to the stunt is the demonstration of the bankruptcy of the on-line review in general and to TripAdvisor’s in particular. But then everyone has said that, so there is little point in my adding to the chorus.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that hype is nothing new and that “fake it till you make it” has been sound advice for most small products. There is an interview where Nick Mason, the Pink Floyd’s drummer, admits that Arnold Layne, the band’s first single, was hyped into the charts. Had it not been, no one would ever have heard of it as the BBC, judging its subject material, the story of a fetishist who steals women’s clothes from washing lines, to be too risqué for public broadcasting, banned it from the radio. With no internet in 1967 and no airplay, there were going to be no sales without a little creative marketing and rule-bending. Hence its chart position, at least initially, was based purely on lies.
But what struck me most about The Shed was Oobah’s perfect demonstration of marketing savvy which can be seen throughout his attempts to get his fake restaurant rocketing up the rankings. He demonstrates marketing talent which may be completely serendipitous but not knowing him, I really can’t say. He seems nonetheless to have an innate ability to understand how to go about the whole process. To begin with, there is the name, The Shed at Dulwich. Brutally honest, it also appears to be a bold, no-nonsense statement, a subversion of exclusivity and expense. Is Dulwich particularly hip these days? Probably not. Not much south of the river is, in London. But the name already sounds hip and off-the-wall. A name that isn’t trying too hard. A name at ease with itself. In a word, cool.
Then – and perhaps this is the most important – there is the positioning. Oobah says that his restaurant is going to obey four key principles:
- You eat outside.
- It’s “as weird as fuck”.
- It’s homely.
- It’s appointment only.
This defines a unique product positioning for The Shed at Dulwich. Put it this way, if The Shed had been another Italian restaurant, there would have been very little chance of it making it to No. 1 out of over 18’000 restaurants in London, no matter how hard it might have been to get a table, or how many reviews it had. The Shed had a unique brand core which might be summarised as Weirdness, Al Fresco, Exclusivity. There are no other restaurants with this same core. In any market, assuming that your product speaks sufficiently to consumer needs, its success is already largely defined by its positioning, hopefully as far as possible from all competitors.
The weirdness begins already with the menu concept, the brilliant idea of “moods” instead of menus. It’s original, different. The weirdness runs through everything about The Shed until it ends up in a wendy-house full of chickens or meeting prospective customers in the street and blindfolding them. “Rural feeling, but mad,” is how one rare actual customer describes it. Weirdness is also akin to strangeness, something that has not been experienced, which in turn is a partial product of exclusivity. It’s the opposite of the everyday. If you can’t get a table, how can you experience The Shed? How can you even know someone who has?
Oobah has it bang on. “People in London adore novelties,” he says. Actually, people everywhere adore novelties, but even more so in a big city. “We are the Banksy of South London restaurants,” he claims, hitting the nail on the head again. Banksy’s work is so famous because he is physically absent from it. He self-promotes by refusing to do self-promotion. Once again, this isn’t new. Led Zeppelin never gave any interviews. Pink Floyd didn’t release singles. Both bands refused to appear on their album art, by and large. By limiting access to you or your product, you increase its mystery and mystery is one of the key product attractors. People are curious. When information is wilfully withheld from them, they value it all the more and they will project this value on to your brand.
Naturally, The Shed is necessarily exclusive because it doesn’t exist, so you can’t book a table. But unavailability is a classic high-end marketing tactic. Top brands have limited distribution and off-putting prices. They often have very limited amounts of stock. They might be order-only; there could be waiting lists. All this increases desirability. The secret is having the balls to make this your strategy, to deliberately refuse to sell your product to prospective buyers. In this scenario, it’s not a good idea to meet demand.
The next lesson is that of knowing your market. Oobah intrinsically understands that his prospective customers aren’t actually looking for a meal; they are looking for a night out, an experience. They could get a meal at MacDonalds. Interestingly, I went to my first MacDonalds in California in 1979 and it was an experience. There can’t have been more than a handful of them in the UK at the time and I had never heard of them. I loved it, just as I loved the all-you-can-eat pizza restaurant I went to in California as well. I wasn’t even a fan of pizza at the time (in fact, I’d never tried it and I didn’t eat cheese). Judging from the callers and diners, The Shed’s prospective customers are young, white and middle-class – probably quite like Oobah, which is perhaps why he understands them. They are the ready-meal generation with little in the way of a palate. No wonder they are not underwhelmed with the crappy cuisine when a few of them actually manage to taste any.
But there you go. If everyone says it’s brilliant, and it looks cool, then it must be cool, even if it originally came out of a foil tray for a quid. What is real cool in any case? It is the magic elixir we all seek, and especially the young urbanite. Cool is just that. Not caring what other people think, refusing to follow the herd, being partly emotionless. Cool is being yourself. The Shed at Dulwich is a lesson in cool for us all and a brilliant lesson in marketing which goes way beyond the simply manipulation of social media. Watch and learn.