The modern definition of the term “branding”

By Philip Koh Co-Founder and Director of Strategy, Without

After a few bad months in the press for branding and hospitality, Without’s Philip Koh wrote an opinion piece for Courier magazine last week calling for a modern definition of the term “branding”…  ​​​​​​

It hasn’t been a great few months for branding and hospitality. Big brands were denounced by the editor of Restaurant magazine. Gordon Ramsay referred to struggling restaurant chains as “shitholes in prime position”. In a tribute to restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, Jay Rayner recounted the reaction of a Brasserie Zédel staff member 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 corporatisation of hospitality. But this is not the definition of modern branding.

Walking from Baker Street to Tottenham Court Road in London last Saturday afternoon, I passed busy cafés 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, 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, Pure’s founder, he was offering some of London’s most satisfying food-to-go in proper kitchens on every site. That’s why their salads don’t wilt, why their croutons are crunchy, why their 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 are 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, the way his restaurants make people feel, he is listing the values held by King’s unique brand of restaurants; the magic of what makes hospitality businesses loved and memorable.

Corbin & King venues are modelled on the grand brasseries of “Mittel Europe”, from the coffee houses of Vienna, to the classic brasseries of France. It explains their menus – running the gamut of Franco-German-Austrian favourites (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. For Colbert, they created 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 is a visceral, mobilising idea.