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Breathing new life into food brands

Both start-ups and established food retailers have begun to understand the benefits of having a strong brand. We look at what food businesses can learn from branding and how social media can help new food businesses.

Launching a food retail business is difficult, almost foolhardy given the number that fail. In a sector where margins are tight and competition fierce, there are so many factors that can determine whether your venture succeeds or fails, it almost seems insane to imagine that your idea will be a hit. Success used to mean finding a great location, hiring a first-rate chef, developing a menu, putting your name above the door, and then hoping that your staff and customers turned up every day. The odd unfair review would be tomorrow's chip paper; the good ones were framed proudly in the window. Today, things are dramatically different. The reviews customers are reading aren't in the broadsheets, they're on their phones, generated by friends, peers or influencers. It's a world where everyone can be a critic, and loyalty has been developed from word of mouth recommendation into a game. Whether you are a barista owned coffee shop or a high street Italian, even if you're not talking to your customers, you can be pretty sure they're talking about you.

Success used to mean finding a great location, hiring a first-rate chef, developing a menu, putting your name above the door, and then hoping that your staff and customers turned up every day.

I'm a partner at a design and branding agency; we've worked with many start-ups, such as the frozen yogurt brand Snog, and one thing is clear, they are increasingly recognising the value of building a robust, engaging brand from the outset. They've seen how brand has the power to define a category, or create impact in an otherwise saturated market (who'd have bet on the success of another upmarket burger chain such as Gondola's Byron?) and for them getting the brand right is a vital part of the business. Our work in the sector is increasingly to develop not just a single, stand-alone restaurant, but the footprint for a scalable business. Of course brand isn't a panacea for a flawed idea or terrible food, but team a smart idea and great food with an engaging brand and you create something that customers not only like, but grow to love, and importantly, want to share their love of with their peers.

Of course brand isn't a panacea for a flawed idea or terrible food, but team a smart idea and great food with an engaging brand and you create something that customers not only like, but grow to love, and importantly, want to share their love of with their peers

Having a strong brand makes communicating to your potential customers much easier – the web and social media has meant that a small company such as Snog can have fans from around the world and 25,000 hits on their website per month, all without doing any paid advertising. Twenty years ago to talk about this sort of traction would have seemed outlandish, now it's increasingly the norm.

Social media can work not just at a global level, but also locally. Attracting the local audience before launch is a smart way to make your presence known and build up those all-important Facebook 'likes'. The hoardings we developed for Snog offered a simple incentive – a free yogurt on the launch night. 'All you have to do is tell us about your first Snog, and share it on Facebook or Twitter'. The result? A ready-made first night audience of 400 customers who have already spread the word to their friends thanks to Facebook 'likes' and 're-tweets'.

A ready-made first night audience of 400 customers who have already spread the word to their friends thanks to Facebook 'likes' and 're-tweets'

For new businesses, getting maximum visibility and return with a small spend is vital. But it's not just the start-ups who are looking at new ways to engage customers. We've recently seen high street favourite Pizza Express launch a redesign that called on a variety of talent: from a theatre director and a professor of acoustics to design consultancy Graphic Thought Facility. An interesting addition to this team was one of the founders of Mumsnet, guaranteeing that it 'really works for mothers'. This mix of traditional marketeers, experiential designers and opinion formers hopefully makes for a compelling experience.

It's undoubtedly an interesting time for food brands. Competition is fierce: as the world has opened up over the last couple of decades, so cuisines from far-flung countries have grown in popularity, and new ways of eating old favourites still emerge. Against all the perceived wisdom of a recession, restaurants, cafés and bars keep opening. Even within a narrow field such as Mexican, brands such as Wahaca, Benito's Hat and Chilango prove that the British palate still has a taste for expansion into new areas. What each of these relatively recent start-ups proves is that investing in a strong brand, designing considered interiors and creating a compelling experience is a vital part of what goes in to carving out a niche within the sector.

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