YO! Sushi boss Robin Rowland on retaining brand voice despite constant innovation

It slid into public consciousness on a conveyor belt of modernity in the late 1990s, helping to bring Japanese food to the masses. Yet YO! Sushi's CEO Robin Rowland maintains that the brand remains just as innovative today.

Since joining in 1999 – lured by what he described as the "food of the future" – Rowland has grown the brand from novel newcomer to a regular feature of the British high street.

Launched with a single restaurant in 1997, YO! Sushi will have 75 outlets in the UK by the end of the year, both propelling and being propelled by an increasingly adventurous Western palate.

"We have always aimed to offer a window on to Tokyo and to make Japanese food more accessible," Rowland says. "Over the past 15 years we’ve seen a real democratisation of food, with tastes getting more sophisticated."

Such democratisation has, of course, brought with it some rivals – competitors like itsu, for example, are a clear sign of how the market for good value Asian food has grown. But YO! Sushi has larger ambitions than merely holding off its rivals.

Indeed, it appears the company itself is now on the menu, with private equity owner Quilvest reported to be on the lookout for a buyer. Rowland will not be drawn on details, but points to YO! Sushi’s philosophy of ‘kaizen’ – a Japanese term for continuous improvement – as a sign of how it aims to move forward.

It may all sound a bit like exotic management speak, but it is hard to argue with the figures. The company’s price tag is reportedly around £120m, more than double what Quilvest paid for it in 2008.

So how has YO! Sushi positioned itself when its "food of the future" has very much become the food of the present? Rowland works alongside LightBrigade PR, and is keenly aware of how the brand is perceived, seeing YO! Sushi not as a restaurant brand but as a retail one.

He defines it as offering an "elegant pit stop" based around "lifestyle", and it is this positioning – implicitly snappier and more reactive than a traditional restaurant chain – that informs a company strategy focused on innovation.

"It is about achieving a genuine and down-to-earth tone of voice, while being both affordable and aspirational. At the same time, we can’t sit on our laurels: if you look at brands like Apple, they would die if they didn’t innovate."

Comms is at the heart of conveying the brand’s evolution – with a major PR campaign driving last year’s launch of the YO! burger, for instance.

As well as food, innovation also feeds into four other areas Rowland deems crucial – property, people, brand promotion and profit – with a strong online presence key to engaging with customers.  

Considering that YO! Sushi’s target demographic is aged between 18 and 35, it is perhaps unsurprising that Rowland emphasises the importance of digital.

Asserting that the company will not "hide behind a stock answer" when it comes to online engagement, he points to his crucial role in ensuring YO! Sushi is seen as having a "genuine" voice.

This includes close monitoring of how the brand is seen online, with customer views on sites like Trip Advisor and Yelp analysed daily, and a broader brand perception survey taken every six months.

Adapting to feedback and keeping stores individual are key goals, but the core brand values and target audience of YO! Sushi remain unchanged.

"We’ve found that wherever we’ve been too flexible in the past, it has been a mistake. There is a universal truth that whether metropolitan or urban, sophisticated customers will be similar in accepting the concept."

And in Rowland’s mind, the concept is far bigger than sushi. "This is the Asian century coming up," he asserts. "That’s what I believed when I joined and that’s what I believe today."

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