10 years since the emergence of the “Cheeky Nandos” meme: how food gets into our collective subconscious

Quite unlikely to register with English speakers outside the British isles, the “Cheeky Nando’s” meme (meme in the academic sense of an evolving and self-perpetuating piece of culture) has sadly been on a stasis since the sequence of hospitality lockdowns in the United Kingdom because of the Coronavirus crisis.

But how did a restaurant brand manage to get into our collective subconscious and our language norms? What types of semiotic hooks did the phrase attach itself onto, and why is it instantly comprehensible to any Brit who hasn’t heard about it?

What does it mean?

“Cheeky” means impertinent, impudent; impertinently bold, often in a way that is regarded as endearing or amusing in British English. It is the action of the boy who goes for the cookie in the jar on the top shelf.

Nando’s is a restaurant chain where one can get a reasonable amount of chicken for a reasonable amount of money. It’s slightly more upscale than an average fast food restaurant, so it’s a perfect place to hang out with friends.

Having a “Cheeky Nando’s”, is the opportunity to have a spicy, delicious, awesome dinner with your friends. But there’s more to the meme than that, as we will see in a bit.

How did it start?

The earliest reference of Cheeky Nando’s on the internet is a song by hip hop artist Buzy Ray on his Soundcloud in 2011. In the years to follow, people have started sharing photos of their “exceptionally cheeky” Nando’s experiences, and the trend got massive appeal globally when the meme reached the American audience which was befuddled by what a Cheeky Nando’s could possibly be.

Photo reposted from knowyourmeme.com

How did it catch on so easily?

The Cheeky Nando’s reflects an even more profound, subconscious part of British office culture, especially in London and the major cities. The wide accessibility of public transport and the strict environmental controls for cars, create the necessary circumstances for socializing with colleagues after work, especially on a Friday night. Compared to the rest of the world, Brits are less likely to jump on their car and drive straight home on a Friday when they get off work. They’re facing a huge commuter crowd and congestion, so any opportunity to stay around for a Cheeky Nando’s after work is a blessing. Usually there’s a pub involved afterwards.

Nando’s is the right mix of fast food and table-service environment: a place where you can see teens with sportswear and a group of middle-aged knowledge workers fit in. It’s also quite affordable, which means that more people can access it, and it also has a high standard of quality, which means you rarely have the sad guy in the corner consuming a bland meal because this is the only thing they can afford.

When the phrase Cheeky Nando’s started reaching the American audience, many news outlets started making content, perplexed about what does this actually mean, explaining the uniquely British phenomenon to the rest of the globe. This, in turn, created a cult-like experience in Britain, participating in a closed club that seems to be incomprehensible to outsiders. This enabled more and more signalling through the proliferation of memes.

Can this be done in your restaurant?

We can safely assume Nando’s didn’t try to jumpstart this meme through some sort of marketing initiative or weird promotional campaign. This is very evident form the absence of the phrase in other countries where Nando’s is active. When people say “Cheeky Nando’s” they feel they are repeating a quirky part of British culture, and not the messaging of some corporate spokespeople. As far as we know, very few (if any) people out there say “finger lickin’ good” or “I’m loving it”, no matter how hard the messaging is hammered in our minds.

What Nando’s did do however to secure this, is the fact that they focused on delivering an experience. They tried to make their restaurant “the place to go after work”. They made sure their branding didn’t care if you wear a suit or a tracksuit. They have large tables for groups of people to sit in in some privacy. They have hearty flavours that get people excited even in the off chance that it might be a Cheeky Nando’s day.

If you want this to happen in your restaurant, focus on the narrative experience. Perhaps you own the place where one takes their parents to treat them a bit – or the tea shop one must visit for some refinement. The quiet lounge where people still read newspapers in. Focus on that, and you make your business the perfect fertile ground for memes like Cheeky Nando’s to proliferate.

Header photo: Banej Own work – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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