Brand profile: How Grill’d rescued the burger, and how it plans to avoid ‘mainstream’

Like all good Aussie yarns, this one starts in a pub. Over a few beers came a complaint: ‘I can’t find a decent, healthy burger.’ The resounding retort from friends, sick of hearing this grievance from Simon Crowe, was ‘put up or shut up.’

Now famous as the man behind burger restaurant Grill’d, Crowe is not a chef, nor did he have any experience in (or even desire for) the hospitality industry. He is a marketer now running one of the most successful and recognisable restaurant chains in the country – with an almost non-existent above the line advertising spend – all the while managing to appeal to a far wider demographic than first intended and creating a niche market within the fast food arena that has since been replicated by many others.

“I was bitching and moaning sitting in the pub, talking to mates, reminiscing about my time in the States and talking about burgers saying, ‘Why can’t we get a good burger?’ They dared me to put up or shut up [but] the thought of going in to food upfront was something abhorrent to me.”

The hospitality industry may have been foreign to him, but an entrepreneurial spirit was not. The boy from Melbourne quit his marketing job at Fosters and began spending his dates with two chefs in pursuit of the perfect burger.

“The fast food landscape in 2004 saw the burger as the bastard child of fast food. It’s held up as the pinnacle of all things inappropriate, yet from a nutritious perspective you look at it and it’s been bastardised for all the wrong reasons,” Crowe says.

Simon Crowe Grill'd

“It was very easy in 2004 (when Grill’d was launched) from the marketing perspective to say that the burger landscape had been untouched, and I thought, there has to be an opportunity there.”

When it came to the name, Crowe narrowed down his choices to ‘Grill’d’ and ‘Bugger the Cow’. He chose Grill’d in the end for a simple reason: the name had longevity. Bugger the Cow would have certainly had talk value, but Crowe was not convinced it would have the staying power that Grill’d could.

“It was a trinket, it was faddish in terms of the name. So the name Grill’d was chosen because of its connotations relating to health.”

The line between the brand Grill’d and its founder is a fuzzy one. Crowe’s personality and values are now synonymous to the burger empire he has created. “When we started the business, I always thought I could have Grill’d on this side of the ledger and Simon Crowe on that side of the ledger.” But for a brand with practically zero above the line spend, the only way to give it any media caché was through PR, and PR focuses very much on the individual versus the business. So the two entities, Simon Crowe and Grill’d, became inextricably linked. “Which wasn’t my plan,” he says.


Coat of Arms burger Grill'd

There isn’t a lot of money in the Grill’d marketing kitty. Only two to three percent of its total revenue goes towards marketing. And with a marketing team consisting of just eight, even now, the brand comes to life in the restaurants rather than through spending on media.

Of key importance to Grill’d is the perfection of the in-store experience and the power of the staff involved. From restaurant location to interior design, to the leadership team and restaurant employees, Crowe sees this product-centric drive as much more powerful than any communications could be.

“If we get our music volume right, the product quality right, and if we get the ambient features relating to lighting and/or temperature right, then what we’ve created is a brand that actually engages with our local community.”

Part of the reluctance to invest in paid media is the brand’s desire to be seen not as a burger restaurant chain, but as a chain of burger restaurants, each restaurant local to its surroundings. There’s also the desire to never become ‘mainstream’, as well as Crowe’s belief that spray-and-pray advertising is often used as the easy way out. “Part of me loves the idea of having a big pool of coin to go and spend to see what impact that would have, and then you go, how does that sit within the brand values that we’ve established?

“I would love to do a significant lifestyle billboard campaign that talks to Grill’d during the summer months. I’d love to consider spending more money and have other people create content for us and have awards for the best content and then potentially air those things on pay TV or mainstream TV. We will have ideas that we will investigate and invest in, but I still think that, by and large, most brands go to it as the lazy way.”

Another carefully-preened facet of the marketing success of Grill’d is its online presence. The brand boasts a small army of online followers. “We don’t talk just for the sake of talking. If there is a purpose behind our conversation that links back to Grill’d at its core, it makes sense that we would have a conversation. But if we’re just commenting for the sake of being controversial and/or roguish, it makes no sense,” says Crowe.

The anti-establishment sentiment that surrounds Grill’d as a brand was at the centre of the ‘anti-celebrity chef ‘ campaign that ran early last year. The campaign included Grill’d staff wearing the slogan ‘F#ck Celebrity Chefs’ on their uniforms and posters proclaiming ‘Foodies are worse than hipsters’. The stunt was met with an internet backlash, but Crowe maintains it was one of his proudest moments for the burger chain.

“It created talk value, it created talkability, it created controversy, but it was all in the space that we believe is our realm, and that is food integrity.

“My intent is to make sure we don’t stop taking risks, because if we don’t take risks, we will become vanilla. If we take risks, we might be cookies and cream. Let’s be interesting.”

Grill'd Quake Relief

Community involvement and giving back to society is another element of the Grill’d business that Crowe is passionate about. The Local Matters project sees each restaurant donate directly to local community charities and projects each month and ties in with Crowe’s desire to keep each one of the Grill’d stores locally focused. From a marketing perspective, the program further cements the values that Crowe is so fervent about maintaining throughout the Grill’d brand.


Franchising was not part of the plan when Grill’d launched back in 2004. Of the three founding business partners one was pro-franchising, one was against, while Crowe was somewhere in between.

Grill'd interior

“It wasn’t in our business strategy, far from it, and I think that’s where a lot of people get confused, particularly in Australia. [Some companies] think that franchising is their business. Bullshit. Franchising, at best, is a distribution strategy. And for us, it’s not even that so much as it is an HR strategy.”

Grill’d is now made up of company-owned restaurants and franchise partners (at a ratio of roughly 2:1) but not just anyone can own a Grill’d franchise.

“Their consistency, their maturity, their life experience, [vetting] those things has actually helped us ensure that we have a HR policy for attracting the best talent, and franchising is in part linked to that HR strategy.”

Consistency and the stability of senior management are the reasons to which Crowe attributes the growth and prosperity of Grill’d franchises. “The plan is to have a hybrid of both company-owned and franchise to make sure that the two interact properly and they get benefits flowing both directions.”


Crowe talks about the brand having two facets, the first being from a rational perspective with the aim of producing local, healthy burgers. The emotional side is a lifestyle brand that is rebellious, but not rebellious just for the sake of being rebellious. Grill’d wants to be a rebel with a cause. “We want to be a lifestyle brand that talks very much to our constituents who are 20-something urbanites, loving music, being very social and always getting together with friends. We know that in part, our brand is two parts: it’s a rebel with a cause, it needs to have a lifestyle element to it, but on a rational basis.”

But Grill’d seems to be having something of an identity crisis. Crowe doesn’t want his brand to be perceived as ‘mainstream’, but with 67 restaurants around Australia, and more on the way, does he have a choice?

“Mainstream, to me, means bland, so we need to keep relevant to our psychographic consumer, that urbanite who loves being social, generally a single or a couple, often at festivals, often in pubs, often at restaurants and cafes.”

It’s currently an unanswered question, whether Grill’d can ride the waves of success while maintaining an irreverent, rebellious soul. It’s even somewhat contradictory that another key to the success of Grill’d has been its ability in appealing to a huge spectrum of customer segments.

“What I was amazed at, even when we opened our first restaurant down the road at Hawthorn, is how many 50, 60 and even 70-year-olds were dining with us saying, ‘I haven’t had a burger like that for years’. It brought people back to the category, which was really pleasing. And the fact that they gave us legitimacy straight away because it wasn’t about only our fit-out, our energy, our passion, it was actually very much about the product, and the product stands alone. So from that foundation, we’ve got strength, and then we’ve got to build all the layers around it.”



So what’s the plan for the little burger joint that could?

Crowe wants to take his business from convenience dining to something he has termed ‘fresh casual’, and he’s going to use alcohol to get there. As an adult brand, Grill’d wants to appeal to adults first, and everyone else second.

Every single Grill’d store, except one, now has a liquor licence and there are plans to further localise the brand by introducing alcohol ranges that match the area, such as local boutique beers. There’s even talk of matching certain beers to certain burgers.

“I want alcohol to be a central part of the dining experience,” says Crowe. “It obviously makes it more adult-esque and… it actually keeps people there for a longer period, so therefore they’re engaging with your brand and the layers that sit within that restaurant more so than they would be to just grab and go.”

Is Grill’d chasing size? “No. Do we think that we have a business that’s scalable, that has longevity? Absolutely.”

So what is Crowe chasing? His ultimate goal is to become an overseas player, with his sights set on breaking into the Asian market, and maybe even the US. It’s possibly an insight into Crowe’s psychology that, given the success of Grill’d here in Australia, he is not satisfied, and seeks to replicate the start-up journey elsewhere. “If we go overseas, we are always going to be the smallest guy in that particular city or country because you don’t start with two, five, 10,15, 50 restaurants, you start with one. And that’s the bit that I like.”

The success of Grill’d up to now is obviously not good enough for Crowe. Many people would take a moment to sit back and enjoy what they’ve built. “I’m learning to be glass half full, but that goes against my natural inclination, which is always to look at the world and/or business opportunities glass half empty.

“I think we’re scoring three out of 10. It doesn’t mean that we’re not doing reasonably well, but three out of 10 versus seven or eight out of 10, I know what that looks like.

“We are still miles away from what is brilliant and when we get closer to brilliant, I think I will be the guy that’s cheering from the front and from the back, but I think that the business will actually be in a space that nobody else is in as it relates to food,” he says.

“I know what nine out of ten looks like.”

Imitators, you have been warned.


All images via Grill’d. Top photograph by Damian Shaw.