Almost Famous is a burger restaurant in Manchester*. I've never been.
It is, however, one of the most popular restaurants in the city. There's a queue outside the door on most nights and, from an outsider's perspective, it looks like a successful business (with rumours of a Liverpool outfit suggesting forthcoming expansion).
From a marketing perspective, Almost Famous is equally successful. It counts 22,500 followers on Twitter and clocks up 1,500 @ mentions per month. Tweets from strangers speak of the queues outside the venue, while melted cheese drips from the hundreds of Instagram photographs taken from inside its walls. The restaurant has a cult following which, given its niche menu, is exceptionally impressive
Indeed, as renowned Manchester commentator Simon Binns points out, 'anyone can make a burger. It's easy. Really, really easy.'
Which begs the question, how has Almost Famous become so popular?**
Almost Famous launched in 2012. There was no address on the website, no sign on the door. It was a secret restaurant. As one blogger wrote, 'you had to be on Twitter to know where it was.' It is a 'discovery brand'***, exclusive; you had to be in the club to know it even existed.
Here's the first clue to its popularity. We all want to be in the club.
'We don't take reservations...turn up and wait it out if necessary'
My first awareness of Almost Famous was not on Twitter. I discovered the brand after walking past the queue of people outside the restaurant's front door (There's always a queue outside Almost Famous). I imagine that many other individuals had the same introduction to the brand.****
As consumers, we all get curious about a queue. We assume that what awaits us at the end of the queue must be relevant to our interests. The latest iPhone, Wimbledon tickets, free muffins.
People guess that whatever is at the end of the line must be worth the effort. Otherwise, why would there be a queue? A line of waiting people is an example of a concept called 'social proof'; tangible evidence that something is popular enough to warrant interest.
My first introduction to Almost Famous was that there was a queue. And if there was a queue, I figured that the food must be worth waiting in line for.
Social social proof
I'd never seen a queue for a restaurant in the Northern Quarter before. It was a remarkable thing and I tweeted a photograph saying as much. Now, my 2000 followers and I were all thinking the same thing.
I've never seen people queue for a burger restaurant.
The food must be amazing.
Where is this place?
Why haven't I heard about it?
When can I go?
I have not been the only person to tweet about the queue outside Almost Famous; dozens of tweets highlighting a queue outside of a burger restaurant. Hundreds of followers wondering what they are missing out on.
Was first in queue at 'almost famous' pop-up burger place in northern quarter - place is a legend & today last day - HURRY!
— Peter Spencer (@petewrites) April 21, 2012
@cognoscentinovo just passed a queue... turns out it's to get into Almost Famous... who knew? http://t.co/NoOZrEkl
— Elmer Fudd (@1onezee) November 10, 2012
@alliemcdonald Almost Famous here in Manc, where the burger tour starts. Still not been, the queue is always massive! http://t.co/cKspPbL9flBut a queue also makes us anxious. A queue means that something is popular. And if it's popular, that special something might run out.
— David Double Double (@boxmusique) April 10, 2013
What if the burgers run out before I get there?
If something is scarce, we're even more anxious to get it. We want to join the queue, just in case we get left out. 'Food is generally till midnight but don't be upset if it stops at 10,' states the Almost Famous website. It's this perception of scarcity that contributes to the desirability of the restaurant.
Exclusivity and social media
But there's another factor in play here.
All your social media content (tweets, pictures, Facebook updates) is part of your social currency. We share stuff that makes us look good to others. Stuff that shapes how people perceive us online.
We want to be seen as insiders. People with exclusive access.
Almost Famous doesn't have any windows. There are no photographs on the website. Unless you've been, you have no idea what it's like.
We want people to know we've eaten there. That we're in the know. In the club.
I'm in this exclusive restaurant and here's a photo of a burger to prove it.
The marketing is done through its customers.
Fried chicken burger @AlmostFamousMCR Beach Club anyone? #fitness pic.twitter.com/PrW21zLiG9It's just a burger
— Antony Cotton (@antonycotton) June 21, 2013
But, anyone can make a burger. It's two pieces of bread and a bit of meat.
Earlier in the year, Simon Binns, commented on the increasing fervour around burger restaurants in Manchester. His thoughts (from the link above):
"And so it is with Manchester's current obsession with burgers. Apparently, they're a new invention, or so some people trying to charge you a tenner each for them would have you believe."
He's right, of course. Five years ago, if I'd have wanted a burger, I'd have gone to any pub. It's two pieces of bread and a piece of meat. Nothing special.
But, Almost Famous has carved out its name (through word of mouth) as the place to go for burgers in Manchester. It's their USP. They're a specialist.
The Almost Famous Twitter account is a jumble; conversations with customers, product promotion and retweets (mainly of photographs of the food taken by customers). It's confident, bordering on arrogance, describing the food as 'killer' and 'boss'. This is called advertising.
But, as it's backed up by buzz from other users, the messages from Almost Famous have weight.
As a consumer, I'll go to Almost Famous because I know that, when I want a burger, they will serve me a remarkable product. They've told me so. The people I follow on Twitter have told me so. The queue outside has told me so.
As a consumer, everything I see about Almost Famous convinces me that they're the best at what they do. There are dozens of nice restaurants in Manchester that might do me an OK burger.
But, it won't be an Almost Famous burger.
Burger the strategy
So, how much of this is strategy and how much is a happy accident? Whatever your view of the venue, Almost Famous has wrapped its offering up in a compelling (and genuine) narrative. You might not like its style or food, but the approach has delivered online fans and offline customers.
Last week, research from marketing agency Online Ventures named the restaurant as one of the most successful Twitter accounts in Manchester.
@OV_Group oh my god that's so totally awesome and undeserved. I'm a twat with a phone and a beer. And a lot of issues. Oh and burgers xI have no idea how true this is. I'd love to buy them a burger and find out.
— Almost Famous (@AlmostFamousMCR) July 12, 2013
*As a disclaimer, the majority of this post was written before the fire at Almost Famous in July. I was genuinely upset to see the news (as I'm all for independent businesses doing well) and I'd like to wish them all the luck in the world when they're back up and running.
**I'm not a food critic. This analysis is from a marketing perspective, rather than from a 'is this food good to eat' point of view.
***Take a look at the New York bar, Please Don't Tell for another example of this.
****The Almost Famous website is very clear to state that it doesn't manufacture the queue outside the venue. I believe them. I think the venue is just *that* popular.