Despite the volatility in the F&B market, casual dining brands are still on the rise. The UK diner has become well accustomed to chain concepts, as operators have effectively ‘cut and pasted’ proven formulas all over the UK. The consumer knows just what to expect on every visit.
But how do brands that want to differentiate themselves in the market balance ambitious growth with holding onto the essence of their personality?
The reality is that dining out is not a functional experience. Yes, we need to eat and yes, that food needs to be something we like and of adequate quality. But what we buy into – and what keeps us coming back – is how the restaurant makes us feel when we’re there. Having no personality is disastrous.
Interestingly, longstanding brands are recognising this and investing on their personality and building a connection with the consumer; family favourite Harvester for example, has gone to great lengths to drive the emotional connection, with the launch of their new ‘feel good’ dining experience and format. They have updated their proposition with the aim of creating a welcoming and relaxing place that dishes up feel-good food and have been driving their key messages through PR and social media to generate brand awareness, drive consideration and build brand loyalty.
Personality is also how new F&B entrants can set themselves apart, offering something new and different, and directly reflecting the vision of the founder. It’s articulated through the environment, décor and service, all of which contribute to the vibe and ambience and defines the guest experience. We like Pho as an example of a founder run business, where the concept offers authentically prepared Vietnamese food – simple and well executed – in a relaxed café environment.
For restaurant propositions wishing to maintain more of a ‘non-chain’ feel, being more selective about locations, and avoiding the more mainstream locations such as shopping malls with generic adjacencies is important to their brand guardianship.
For Pragma, winning brands are those that retain the right amount of authentic personality and feeling as they expand, bringing together the need to remain different and special, without being too contrived.
Established operators are striving to stay relevant – Jamie’s Italian, Byron, Prezzo and Carluccio’s have all recently confirmed troubles. At the same time, new concepts are launching, with the defined mission to expand through the UK. So, we ask, how does business retain the essence of the brand as it scales?
Know what you stand for, and ensure it is relevant to your audience
Through the course of a roll-out programme, it can be challenging to ensure that your brand values continue to be expressed and articulated as originally intended. This is especially true given the need to adapt to different market places and broader customer needs.
Fast-growing F&B brands must capture and communicate their brand vision at every stage of growth. This means getting to the core of what you stand for and understanding customer behaviours. This gives you the foundations for clear storytelling and enables brand personality to shine through.
Focus on guest experience
Ask how you can articulate the brand personality across every component of the guest experience. Be sure to consider all touchpoints – to deliver the right overall message, from décor through to environment. Don’t forget how much your website captures your brand vibe. Pizza Pilgrim is an example of a growing F&B player fully attuned to the emotional connection their customers have with them and recognise how brand storytelling resonates with their customers. Drake & Morgan weave their founding principles of innovation and exploration into their website, sharing stories around their team’s international trips to inspire product launches. Immediately customers see how the bar group is investing in delivering that exciting proposition whilst adhering to its original ethos.
Make your people your brand ambassadors
Recruitment is a challenging focus point for all growing brands. In the hospitality sector, it’s particularly acute; it’s hard to attract and retain great people yet so important that your team embraces and represents your brand positively. The right people help strengthen what you do, and build loyalty through a shared affinity with your business’ vision.
Operators need to be clear about the type of service they want to offer and how staff should behave with customers. Investing in training is vital, as is leading by example. Great service enhances customer engagement and advocacy. This means that creating a culture that rewards and incentivises on-brand behaviour could be your biggest win.
The growth journey
Becoming established as a favourite F&B destination relies on delivering a great experience – consistently good service combined with great quality food. For brands looking to safeguard reputation and their place in the consumer repertoire as they shift from novelty to reliability, the need to execute and deliver consistently becomes paramount.
Or course, as with all business growth, challenges are inevitable; a brand’s promise can often be compromised with initial teething problems in rollout. From a brand reputation perspective, this can be hard to recover from. First impressions matter and set the tone for ongoing performance. Be clear on your brand’s scalability potential and, as far as possible, pace growth at a manageable, considered pace.
Stay clear about your brand… and be prepared to evolve to stay relevant
All growing brands need to understand who their customers are, what they want and why they like you. As a growing F&B business, that clarity around your proposition – and how it is articulated in the guest experience – must underpin everything. You can then understand how to evolve the various brand components, adjusting key elements where necessary, to reflect what your audience is looking for. It is through this understanding that you can create an evolving offer, one that delivers a truly reliable and trusted brand promise.
By Helene Mills, director of Pragma, a strategic partner for operators and investors in consumer markets