Under the influence

Designers have called time on formulaic theming for pub chains, creating fresh concepts to whet the appetite.

Along with fish and chips, the white cliffs of Dover and the Queen Mother, the pub is esteemed as one of the nation’s great institutions. This month’s Great British Beer Festival celebrated one of the pillars of that institution, the pint, and no doubt many participants bemoaned the passing of what is seen as the heyday of civilisation, a land that John Major described in his vision of green fields, warm ale and the sound of leather against willow.

The idiosyncratic pub in its country setting, serving a wide variety of beers and simple but tasty food, is part of an enduring myth which for many people helps define what it means to be British. The concept of the branded pub is interpreted as an attack on that sense of identity, which is why its success is so deeply galling to so many people. But successful it undoubtedly is. All Bar One is planning its 40th site, in Oxford this year, and a host of other chains including Pitcher and Piano and Slug and Lettuce are doing a roaring trade.

The yearning for a “lost golden age” plays a key role in the British psyche and is known by psychoanalysts as “melancholia”, a condition of being nostalgically trapped in mourning the past and not being able to accept or celebrate change. Institutions which form part of that image of the past are idealised, which is exactly what has happened to the pub.

However, ten years ago many people were realising that the pub business was in desperate straits. The industry was characterised by massive over-capacity, a dangerously rigid relationship between breweries and pubs and a culture of poor service. In 1989 Tim May, chairman of Design House, which designed the concept for the award-winning The Fine Line, gave a talk at the Interior Design Conference, in which he described the British pub: “Nowhere else in the world is the business of getting a drink and something decent to eat such a difficult, sordid, ritualistic, male-dominated, unfriendly, uncouth, uncomfortable and totally underwhelming experience.”

Since then the size of the market has shrunk in real terms, with the amount being spent in pubs declining by 2 per cent since 1993, according to market research group Mintel, over a period when the economy has grown between one and three per cent. However, because the number of pubs has also shrunk from 81,000 to 76,000 over the same period, the turnover per pub has increased.

Part of the shift in the structure of the market is due to what is known as the Beer Orders, the result of an investigation by the then competition authority the Monopoly and Mergers Commission in 1989, which meant that big breweries could no longer retain their stranglehold over pubs and were forced to sell their properties. This helped accelerate change, one sign of which was the rise of the branded pub, aimed at introducing quality and consistency and also designed to appeal to women.

For many people, particularly in the 18-25 age group, pubs are places to meet potential partners, which is why women are so significant in the equation. “In heterosexual behaviour sets, where the girls are the blokes will follow,” says May. This is reflected in the design of the branded pub, which is found on the high street rather than in back alleys. Inside, blonde wood and chrome symbolically replace dark wood and brass; large windows mean women can see in before going in; there is a long bar so that people can get served more easily with table service available; and there is a much better selection of wine and food, reflecting a decrease in the consumption of beer. Along with these changes, socially it is understood that the boys must behave if they come in; drunken, rowdy behaviour is frowned upon.

But while this formula has proved immensely successful, some people believe there is room for refinement and many designers are instinctively suspicious of the idea of branding and standardisation. Julian Taylor, director at Caulder Moore Design, believes people are now looking for something more sophisticated: “It can be like going into your local supermarket, they’ve become so bland and are very much a marketing formula. There’s nothing intrinsic about it which makes you think it belongs to an area.”

The alternative, Taylor believes, is to be more aware of the inherent qualities of both the building and the area, which is what Caulder Moore tried to do with the pubs it designed for groups such as Smith and Jones and Parisa, while retaining many of the key elements which contribute to women-friendly design. However, this is something that some of the branded pubs argue they are equally aware of. Steve Hall, associate at The Design Solution, says his consultancy’s designs for Pitcher and Piano are aimed at being individual while staying within the brand’s family of design.

Hall also argues that Pitcher and Piano, which now has 25 bars around the country, has been careful not to expand over-rapidly, contributing to the quality and variety within the brand: “Every single Pitcher and Piano is different because the buildings they go into have such character. Nowadays people look for independence, hence the big operators are looking to de-theme their operation and give each one a more independent flavour.”

Along with standardisation, there is another objection which designers raise. The drive to attract women has meant that some pub designs have become over-feminised. Caulder Moore’s Taylor points to the Irish-themed chain O’Neils, as an example of this: “If you go to an Irish pub in Ireland, it’s actually a very masculine, macho place. What they’ve done with O’Neils is to sterilise that, because I think people are afraid of having something which is too raw.”

This perhaps reflects a more widely held view, expressed in the press by several women writers, that while the push for equality for women was entirely necessary, masculinity needs to be rehabilitated to some extent. The Elbow Room, based in London’s Westbourne Grove, is a good example of design which incorporates masculine and feminine elements in a more balanced way than many of the chains. The Elbow Room takes a traditionally male venue, and makes it attractive to women by including a sophisticated bar area, partially enclosing the pool area and providing a number of enclosed areas. Yet it retains an edge through masculine elements of design and materials, like the iron from which the stools are made.

However, despite the increasingly sophisticated nature of bar design, some commentators believe that the industry is still deficient in a number of areas. A spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale, says that while CAMRA welcomes the moves towards attracting more women into pubs and recognises that many pubs still need to improve their level of service, the highly branded chains are too narrowly targeted. The money, he says, would be better spent improving the basic facilities of a larger number of outlets.

“If you go to any theme bar they are usually one cavernous room, music blaring out and no provision for non-smokers,” the spokesman says. “We don’t think they’ve got any longevity because ultimately these pubs are fads. We broadly support the community pub, which is multi-roomed and which caters for many different people within that community.” This year CAMRA, together with English Heritage gave out an award for the best pub design for the first time in 14 years to the Wharf in Walsall – which fits CAMRA’s description perfectly.

Some analysts agree that the pub brand is not the saviour that it seems to be and that the industry is still in severe difficulty. Credit Suisse First Boston’s Stuart Price believes that the industry is still characterised by significant over-capacity (estimating that there are only 760 people per pub in the UK), and that low barriers to entry mean that branding innovations are quickly copied, eroding their effectiveness. Price also believes that there is low customer loyalty, all of which means that many pubs remain in a precarious position and that further changes and improvements are necessary.

“There is no panacea here,” he says. “Yate’s Wine Lodges has a system where customers can go on to a night club by a special bus. They also have a very sophisticated IT system which allows them to monitor sales and maximise their labour utilisation. What they have demonstrated is that there is a way forward. It is encumbent on the rest to either plough their own field or follow a similar vein.”

But despite Price’s downbeat assessment, it is clear that the increased sophistication of pub design has brought success and revolutionised the market. The future success stories will be pubs which continue to invest in design, but as May at Design House says: “In the future, pub brands will be much less crass and more sensitively and accurately targeted.” In other words, not less branding, but better branding.

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