Appealing to the locals

‘Debranding’ your well-known offer is all the rage at the moment – or at least customising it to suit a particular location. Jack Jones reports

Starbucks’ decision to remove all branding from one of its Seattle coffee shops has been held up by some as evidence of a backlash against big brands.

The experiment has been widely portrayed as an attempt to distance the outlet from the brand, to rescue it from its ubiquity.

While the coffee giant flirts with ‘debranding’, UK garden centre group Wyevale has already taken the plunge. It removed the Wyevale brand from almost all of its 114 outlets earlier this year.

Chief executive Nicholas Marshall explains, ‘Garden centre customers just aren’t interested in national brands – local brands are synonymous with good quality and good service for them.’

In both these cases the companies are ditching their own, recognisable brands and trusting to the selling power of the local neighbourhood.

Starbucks’ new coffee joint is called 15th Ave Coffee & Tea, and Wyevale’s rebranded nurseries have been returned to previous, locally trusted names.

Both exercises seem to have been successful, with Starbucks claiming an enthusiastic reception, and Wyevale reporting a year-on-year increase in sales of 28 per cent.

But these are just the most extreme examples of an increasing trend towards customising brands to locations. Most companies do not want to go to these lengths and instead choose to balance their brand identity and their local identity. Small- and medium-sized businesses have so far proved more adept at this.

Salad bar chain Tossed, for example, employed consultancy Honey to achieve this across its restaurants.

Tossed founder Vincent McKevitt says that while the company’s brand is important, he also wants each outlet to be individual.

‘The brand tells our customers what they can expect from our food, but we wanted to make each location different to make it more fun and personal,’ he says.
Doug James, managing director of Honey, believes this gives the customer more choice and makes their experience more memorable.

‘We wanted each store to reflect where the food came from, where people wanted to eat, and also the history and geography of the outlet’s location,’ he says.

So Tossed’s eatery on Tottenham Court Road in London features displays that reflect the number of local electronics and gadget shops.

‘We just work with what we have in each location, using puns, associations and local history,’ says McKevitt.
This concern to capture something of the local area has been taken one step further by pizza and pasta chain Zizzi, which has commissioned young artists to customise its interiors.

Illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen has just finished working on the chain’s Marlow restaurant, which opens this week.

‘The brief was to create a mural connecting the Zizzi brand to the town of Marlow, but I had free rein to approach it how I liked’, she says.

The result is a psycho-geographic map of the area including local landmarks and reflecting the town’s historical associations with the river.

Pia Fairhurst, head of design at Zizzi, says the company took a similar approach at its Winchester restaurant, which is in the former Hampshire Chronicle building.

‘Old copies of the paper feature on the walls and our illustrator Camille Rousseau worked old typefaces and printing techniques into her mural,’ she says.

The exercise is part of a redesign of the chain’s 101 restaurants that Fairhurst is working on with Brown Architecture Studio and Dover Design.

Elements of the brand have been retained, such as the open kitchen and some of the furniture and fittings, as well as the standardised menu, and Fairhurst says the revamp has gone down very well with customers and staff.

London boulangerie and patisserie Apostrophe has taken a similar approach in launching a Window Wonderland competition to design custom window displays for its stores this Christmas.

James believes that customising outlets in this way makes a brand ‘collectable’, building an enthusiasm for it and giving customers an incentive to visit more branches.

Boutique and high-end retailers have known this for years, commissioning designers to create one-off interiors for their stores and concessions.

But James thinks these custom designs should be rooted in local areas to fully exploit peoples attachment to places and brands.

‘Your local pub has been doing it for years,’ he says. ‘It’s all about using the memories and associations that customers build up.’

He says that the same goes for a brand: once it is ‘out there’, it is owned by its customers rather than the company. ‘You just have to guide it,’ he says.

This is clearly something which smaller, entrepreneurial companies have been trying for a while. It remains to be seen whether the likes of Starbucks can be quite so nimble-fingered in tailoring their brand to suit the neighbourhood.

Debranding Starbucks

  • 15th Ave Coffee & Tea is the first Starbucks outlet to be debranded
  • Starbucks’ logo and name have been completely removed
  • The redesign was carried out following ‘observation’ trips to local coffee houses
  • The outlet hosts live poetry and music evenings, and publicises local events
  • There was some controversy after a neighbouring restaurateur claimed that Starbucks copied her look

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