What branding needs to learn from Gordon Ramsey

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In the branding world, “Design Thinking” and “Brand Centricity” are on the forefront of everyone’s mind. Despite this focus on the design process and graphic consistency, there is a shift that brands both large and small are facing. Customers are abandoning established brand relationships in favor of new challengers and products. What are the well known category players getting wrong?

Sunday morning as I’m watching the Kitchen Nightmares marathon, it hits me. Chef Ramsey asks, “Why is this Lasagna not fresh but frozen???” The floundering restauranteur, who is half a million in debt and runs a predictably mediocre establishment, lamely responds, “We can’t make fresh lasagna everyday! It’s too expensive and takes too long. The guests would be waiting a long time for their food to arrive! We need lasagna. An Italian restaurant without lasagna — fuggedaboutit!!!”

I’m aligning myself with him and I say, “Do forget about it!!!”

A chasm has formed between brands and their customers. Companies obsess over their offerings and product lines, but often forget about the reason why consumers came to them in the first place. We are moving from a world of visual consistency to one based on word of mouth, from centralized control to all access, from bringing products to people to bringing people to the product. The only true connector consumers care about are simple brand stories, and these stories can be told in multiple ways through many different means. Brand building without a brand pyramid? Yes please!

Making the connection

Let’s back up a bit. Here I say branding of old has something in common with restaurants of bygone times. The magic happened in the mainly closed kitchen (in branding’s case, the agency/studio). The experience was centered around a linear timeline with starter, main, dessert (positioning, design, activation) and there were all the basic assumptions: What universally constitutes Italian food, Japanese food, American food etc. (business types like B2B, Digital, Heathcare, etc). Fine dining’s aura of order and structure trickled down to family restaurants and chains. Still today, in much the same way, our established branding agency models of design process dictate the project approaches that smaller shops use in their work.

Now in contrast, let’s look at a successful restaurant of today that would make a foodie ecstatic. I’m using the highly awarded Brooklyn Fare Restaurant as an example. It has an open kitchen where interactions with the chef during preparation are encouraged. The experience is nonlinear and always orchestrated depending on outside factors that the restaurant doesn’t control. Seasonal availability curates the ingredients, newly discovered spice combinations are explored, and all types of cuisine are fair game. The chef has tattooed sleeves that he feels no need to hide.

Orchestrating the experience

In the old way there was a program, an order to the static, linear evening. The special is the most special part of the manifesto: the MENU. In the new way there is an orchestration, a co-informed experience where the chef texts you wine suggestions while he prepares the piece of beef. A cut of meat that, only on this day, balances against a fruit that is best this time of year. A performance. There is no menu manifesto, only a flyer that lists the evening’s course. What makes the restaurant successful is not the universal checklist of featuring parody foods at any cost (frozen lasagna) but the ethos created by a type of thinking that puts brand, product, and experience on the same level.

What drives a successful restaurant today? It isn’t an endless menu of traditional mainstays. It isn’t a tested and approved blueprint. Rather, it is the ability to produce a concise product that fits with a concise story. For example, let’s say Italian food stands for freshness. If that is true, then each and every day that brings about the confidence to build a custom menu. This offering will be based on season, ingredients, and customer need. If regional freshness is the driver of the story, then 3 items on the menu may be enough to get crowds lining up around the block.

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What this means for branding today

I believe that if brand builders would commit to delivering clear stories for each and every brand while keeping their menu flexible, then there would be lines around the block for their services as well. Successful brand building, like successful restaurant building, is about identifying the exact ingredients that are needed for each product and how they connect to the story of the brand. Only if management, the chef, the food and the restaurant tell the same story the result will be successful.

In return, the important part is to acknowledge that the story itself is also formed by the experience, the product, and the brand. This means that if you want to stay relevant as as a manager of a restaurant you have to acknowledge that the ingredients keep changing with the seasons, your location, audiences tastes, etc. and that your story reflects this while still standing for something constant. If you want your brand to stay relevant , you have to realize that the ingredients that make a successful brand keep changing around a story that can hold this constant change together.

Are you ready for your brand makeover yet?

– Marc Hohmann, Managing Director, Design at Sterling Brands