The legendary Nando's black card is arguably the most sought-after status item in food, but getting one is not easy.
For the few who are not aware of the brands, Nando’s is a South African chain of Portuguese-style peri-peri spiced chicken restaurants. Founded in Johannesburg in 1987, it now has more than 1,000 outlets in 35 countries, but in the UK in particular it has built up a cult following. And part of that cult status is down to the Nando’s Black Card.
The Nando's black card is more than a rumour...
The card, officially called the High Five, was for years no more than a rumour. Those who possessed one, the legend said, could avail themselves of free Nando’s for a year, not only for themselves, but also four friends.
Nando’s denied that the card even existed.
When the Financial Times interviewed co-founder and chief executive Robbie Brozin, even the serious pinstriped FT couldn’t resist asking about the black card and were told that, no, it was just a rumour.
Soon after, in the FAQ section of Nando’s website, they acknowledged the rumours, saying: “A card that magically provides free Nando’s for a whole year,” they say. “Like unicorns and Robin Hood, is it just a legend?”
Who has got a Nando's black card?
Then Ed Sheeran – having dedicated a song to Nando's called the Nando’s Skank – posted a picture of himself posing with the card. Others followed and despite the brand’s reluctance to give out more information, it was confirmed as being real.
The holder of the card was indeed entitled to free meals for themselves and four friends. The back of the card states, "As a valued friend of Nando's, the person named on this card is entitled to one starter, one combo meal, one dessert and one soft drink — along with up to four friends. Sorry no free alcoholic drinks."
It was a big deal. If the card's owner takes four friends to a Nando's restaurant every night of the week for the full year they could potentially get over £36,000 worth of food and drink, but you’d have to be something of a masochist to do that.
Other black card holders proudly outed themselves, including Boxer David Hayes, TV presenter Vernon Kay and actor Reggie Yates. Tinchy Stryder, the rapper, Niall Horan from pop band One Direction, Ant and Dec, Holly Willoughby, Andi Peters, Katie Price and Peter Andre, Johnny Vegas and Chris Moyles.
To be honest, it’s a bit of an underwhelming list, more akin to an OK Magazine Christmas party guest-list than a who’s who of A-list stardom. But that’s the brilliance of the black card. Its recipients are exactly the sort of people that Nando's customers know about, probably follow on social media, and for a brand that’s more than Burger King or McDonald's but not quite a Jamie’s Italian, it’s a carefully-considered choice of recipients.
You wouldn’t expect to see world leaders flashing their card on Instagram, but even then, American President Barak Obama once gave them a shout out in a speech, and Prince Harry was once spotted getting takeout in the Fulham branch.
The key to getting one was to publicly and loudly espouse your love for the brand, as well as being in a position of influence. Some of the recipients have used that chicken-purchasing power for good. When musicians Bipolar Sunshine and Jazz Purple were awarded cards following their performance at a festival in Manchester, they used it to buy food for homeless people. But just getting one was a big deal.
"It comes in this like really small little black box and it gives you like a little rules and regulations of how you're meant to use it,” they told the BBC. “It felt like one of those moments where the guy takes the sword out of the stone, and you're like, ‘Ahhhhh, I have this card and I can just buy chicken!’”
The power of the black card
The demand for one only grew now that they were known to be a real thing.
A few years ago an inside source from the Nando's PR team told me that a well-known Premier League and England footballer got in touch and practically begged to have one of the cards. He may have millions in the bank and drive a Lamborghini, but there are some things money can’t buy. Being able to pull out a Nando's Black Card in the dressing room has a certain cache, despite the fact that any of the players in the dressing room could afford to buy Nando's every day for the rest of their lives and barely make a dent in their fat wallets. Nando's turned him down.
Nando's had stated on its website that, "We can tell you for certain that no-one who's requested a card, no matter how politely, has ever received one. Asking for one is simply the biggest taboo — a definite no no."
This makes them even more desirable. As for mere members of the public, Nando’s once said that anyone who could prove they’d eaten in every restaurant across the world would receive free food for life, not just a year as the black card would entitle them to.
That PR hyperbole was taken literally by one British man who attempted to eat at all 1,031 stores on the planet. But after documenting trip to 85 UK branches – and putting on a considerable amount of weight – someone pointed out to him that the deal, which had been announced two years previously, was no longer running.
Another British teenager even had the Nando's logo tattooed on his bum in the hope that it would earn him a black card, but nothing was forthcoming, leaving him to rue, “I’ll get it lasered off and get KFC on there instead… let’s be honest, it’s much better.”
What we do know is that the Nando's black card is perhaps one of the best pieces of food-based marketing ever conceived. It's a brilliant example of rarity and exclusivity driving desirability. The coverage that it has brought the brand from those who have been awarded one has far outweighed the cost of the product given away to card holders. Even now, there are people with millions in the bank who are desperate to get their hands on one.
Fakes have even cropped up on ebay, with one in 2013 seeming having been bought for under 20 quid after three bids. Whether it worked in any Nando's stores we’ll probably never know – it’s unlikely – but the mere existence of something that entitles you to a year of free chicken has become more sought after than any reservation in any Michelin-stared restaurant or rare bottle of wine. The ability to flash a black metal card and get in a round of free cheeky Nando's for you and your mates is currently where the bragging rights lie.