Comment: Don't call me a brand

Philip Koh digs into why ‘brand’ isn't the dirty word that many in hospitality think it is.

Philip Koh is the co-founder and director of strategy at Without, a London agency specializing in food and drink, luxury, leisure and hospitality. 

It hasn't been a great few months for branding and hospitality. The editor of Restaurant magazine denounced big brands. Chef Gordon Ramsay referred to struggling restaurant chains as ‘shitholes in prime position’. In a tribute to restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, critic Jay Rayner recounted the reaction of a staff member at Brasserie Zédel restaurant (founded by Chris and Jeremy) in London on being addressed by the new owner: ‘He kept referring to us as a brand. We've never thought of ourselves as a brand.’ No wonder, when the term is often hijacked to describe the soulless corporatization of hospitality. But this isn't the definition of modern branding.

Walking from Baker Street to Tottenham Court Road in London last Saturday afternoon, I passed busy cafes and restaurants – including some of our clients – and reflected on the reason behind their longevity: the singular vision of the founders behind each business. 

I remember when Alex and Saiphin, the husband-and-wife founders of Rosa's Thai Cafe restaurants, approached us in 2008. Their first restaurant on the site of a London cabbie's caff was a unique expression of Thai and English culture – and what set them apart from bamboo-clad competitors. 

When we met Spencer, the founder of health-food brand Pure, he was offering some of London's most satisfying food to-go in proper kitchens on every site. That's why the salads don't wilt, why the croutons are crunchy, why the dressings are delicious – you can't make this kind of fresh food without on-site kitchens. Right from the start, the hospitality businesses we've worked with have stood for something – even if they weren't sure how to articulate it at first. 

That's because they're not faceless corporations; these are brands created by people who care about making life tastier, healthier and more interesting. When Jay Rayner writes of Jeremy King's eye for detail, his enlightened recruitment policies and the way his restaurants make people feel, he's listing the values held by Jeremy's unique brand of restaurants – the magic of what makes hospitality businesses loved and memorable. 

Corbin & King venues are modeled on the grand brasseries of central Europe, from the coffee houses of Vienna to the classic brasseries of France. It explains their menus – running the gamut of Franco-German-Austrian favorites (sauerkraut, schnitzels, strudels) – and style (pristine service to a relaxed, all-day crowd). The butter comes covered with a slip of greaseproof paper with the restaurant's pattern. When you order a coffee, you know you'll get the full complement of heavy silverware. 

Each restaurant is built around a fictional character. Fischer's is the story of Otto and Maria Fischer – one Jewish, the other Catholic – escaping Vienna before the war. Colbert tells the story of Pierre, chased out of Paris for seducing a cafe owner's daughter. Walk into any Corbin & King restaurant and you'll instantly get a sense of place, of the outlines of a story. Restaurant critic Grace Dent once said, ‘People don't flock to The Wolseley for life-changing eggs on toast; they go for a big plate of mood.’ 

How do I motivate my team? Why isn't our marketing effort joined up? Why don't our customers know how good we are? The answer to all those questions is the same: a brand rallies teams around a unique vision. The businesses that are flourishing today invested heavily in original concepts, when perhaps their spreadsheets, back at the beginning, were telling them not to. But a brand story is neither a paragraph of text nor a corporate entity united by a logo. It's a visceral, mobilizing idea.

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 47, June/July 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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