Wagamama’s Emma Woods: ‘Proper innovation can be a game-changer for growth’

As the Asian chain releases a brand-new cookbook, its CEO talks about her outlook on development.

26 September 2019

Innovation is not just about developing new things, it’s about developing things that customers actually want – and there is a big difference, according to Emma Woods, chief executive of Wagamama.

Speaking at MCA’s Restaurant Conference last week, she told delegates that her educational studies and her work in marketing at Unilever had helped form her belief that “proper innovation can be a game-changer for growth.”

Woods said she was lucky enough to work for an organisation that over-committed to innovation.

“You did it year in and year out and you got lots wrong, but it was actually the lessons you took from the innovation that you got wrong that really stuck with me,” she explained.

One of her biggest lessons was that when you ‘cried new’ when promoting an innovation, if it was not something that was not on the customer’s side or customer-led, “then your innovation was doomed to a very short life.”

Woods explained that while she sees almost all businesses in the sector being “extraordinarily innovative” when they start off, it’s the businesses that manage to maintain a steady flow of innovation that stand the test of time. What’s key is thinking about how to innovative to drive growth.

Fostering innovation

For Woods, it starts with leadership. Leaders need to be really passionate about innovation and live it on a day-to-day basis. She noted various eating out brands that she admired for their initiatives over the past five years: McDonald’s, for the work they have done around customer experience and their kiosks; Burger King, for the work they have done to innovate their marketing; and Greggs, which quietly innovated its proposition and then came out loud and proud with the vegan sausage roll.

Another important factor is the need to create and nurture an innovation culture.

“Truly successful business don’t confine the prerogative of innovation to the marketing team,” she said. “This really struck me joining Wagamama. I realised I didn’t need to push the innovation agenda, I needed to nurture a concept called ‘kaizen.’ For us, it means ‘good change.’ Every day in simple ways we strive to be better than the day before.

Woods also spoke about the development of Wagamama’s vegan offering, such as its vegan katsu curry and eggs, pinpointing three key ingredients to the successful implementation: commitment to finding what consumers want; listening to the team when it comes to ideas input; and collaborating with like-minded, external businesses or individuals to create a successful proposition.

“It is living this idea and nurturing this concept of an innovation culture that is managing to keep our drumbeat of innovation going,” she added.

There are pressing challenges that require innovative thinking, according to Woods, who highlighted two that she considers the most important: sustainability and mental health.

“We can be on the frontline of driving some of the change we need,” she urged. “If we can come together, we can solve some of the issues.”

A version of this article first appeared on Food Spark’s sister site MCA. Click here to learn more about the recently released MCA Restaurant Market Report 2019, the definitive report on the state of the UK restaurant industry, together with growth forecasts to 2022. 

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