Make your mark: getting your pub's branding on point

By Claire Churchard

- Last updated on GMT

A logo can evoke emotion in people just by looking at it.
A logo can evoke emotion in people just by looking at it.

Related tags: Brand, Brand management, Cocktail

Your pub brand can be the key to financial success or the tether that holds you back. The Morning Advertiser examines some (in)famous brands that always, well mostly, seem to get it right.

Picture a group of friends on an evening out. They head into a dimly lit bar. The floors are bare, the brickwork stripped back and the air conditioning ducts are industrial strength. Beer menus grace the tables among other ‘hop propaganda’, while bright neon signage declares ‘beer is art’ or ‘in hops we trust’. The crowd are youngish, with a whiff of anti-authoritarianism and more than just an appreciation of craft beer, and the bar has pumps emblazoned with a stylised howling blue wolf. Or is it a dog? Where are they? For anyone that has been to one of its bars, this has BrewDog’s paw prints all over it.

The brand is strong with this one, and it has helped Scottish duo Martin Dickie and James Watt create an internationally recognised brewing and pub company worth millions and employing hundreds of people in just 10 years.

Its customers identify with its philosophy for brewing great beer and readily buy into it, literally for those who have shares. ‘In hops we trust’, indeed.

“A brand for a company is like its seal of quality,” says Mike Chang, managing director at brand consultancy Feature Design, who has worked with pubs for decades. “Behind a brand is strategic thinking set out by people behind the business. It’s their ethos and conviction. The brand is the end product of what they really believe in, you would hope.”

Consumers play a key role, adds Chang. “I think brands are pretty much built by the consumers. It’s their perception of how they see a company. But it is a business’s role to shape and nurture that perception.”

The monetary value of a brand can be difficult to quantify, but Chang says they “often evoke an emotion”, which connects consumers with the product and service and keeps them coming back for more.

A logo, for example, is just a very small part of the branding, but it can evoke emotion in people just by looking at it. “The McDonald’s logo for example, may prompt some to think ‘I fancy a quick bite to eat’, while another might think ‘I’m going to drive the other way’,” says Chang.

The 7 Ps of marketing

Product – It should fit the task consumers want to use it for, such as good beer and pubs designed with the target customer in mind.

Place – Where is your pub and what do the customers there want? There’s no point setting up a hipster bar in a village populated by retirees.

Price – Good value for money, whether its aimed at the higher luxury end or value crowd.

Promotion – How you use advertising, PR, sales promotion, personal selling and social media to get the word out.

People – Your staff can make or break the brand. Hire the right people and ensure they know and agree with the ethos of your brand.

Processes – How you deliver what your customers expect, something Wetherspoon does well. Mike Chang, managing director at Feature Design, says: “JDW has processes coming out of its ears.”

Physical evidence – For pubs, this will be the food and drink and whether its meets customer expectations of quality.

JDW courting controversy

One pub company that embodies brand success is JD Wetherspoon. It may have its detractors but the company also has a faithful, and ever-growing, legion of supporters.

Part of the reason is that across their almost 900-strong pub estate, customers know what they are going to get. From real ales and craft beer to its reasonably priced all-day menu, not to mention clean well-maintained toilets.

And the pubco has never been afraid to be different. Whether it is courting controversy with its pro-Brexit beer mats, refusing to play background music so people can hear each other speak or opening a non-smoking bar as early as 1991, years before the 2007 ban, Spoons certainly goes its own way.

“They know what they are and where they are in the market and that hasn’t changed,” says Chris Tymon, creative director at Toast Design brand consultants.

“They have a clear vision of where they’re taking the brand. The pricing is perfect for many people. You don’t want to spend lots of money every time you go out, so you’ll go to one of their pubs.”

He says the design side of things doesn’t change from pub to pub. “There is consistency in menu style, the offer is well organised and priced. That builds confidence in the consumer.”

Another reason the brand is so strong is, Chang says, that Wetherspoon does the ‘seven Ps’ of marketing really well (see box on right). “Branding and marketing are very much interlinked. The ‘seven Ps’ of marketing are: product, promotion, price, place, people, process and physical evidence. If you do those seven things really well, it’s the key to success,” he explains.

But whatever you, do don’t describe Spoons as a brand when you’re speaking to Eddie Gershon, JDW spokesman.

He says the pubco thinks of itself as “antibrand” and that unlike some pubcos, JDW has gone out of its way not to brand itself. “All our pubs look different, they have individual names. Yes the menus and range of drinks are similar but they’re slightly different in terms of real ales.

“Every pub is designed differently and looks different. So we would argue that we’re not a brand whatsoever.”

Opposite of branding

When you think about it, he may have a point. Many JDW pubs are in historic buildings from former cinemas, to one-time opera houses and churches that have retained many of their original features.

Gershon says they are “the opposite” of brands like Revolution, for example, which all have the same name and look the same.

The company has also embraced mobile-ordering technology with its order and pay app and is not shy when it comes to social media. It roundly dismissed a cheeky tweet from a parody account last year when satirists went a bit too far by claiming the pubs had banned poppies. They hadn’t.

Gershon says: “Recognition has come about because of strong public relations, word of mouth and because Tim [Martin, JDW founder and chairman] is very vocal.” He adds: “JDW has, in my opinion, transcended other pubcos.”

Referring to recent headlines, when the pubco had to cancel its steak night due to supply issues, the PR man says: “It was only big news because it happened to Wetherspoon. The difference is that Wetherspoon is the zeitgeist, so when things happen in Wetherspoon, it’s a big story.”

Don’t copy others

For pubs that want to reach the heady heights where they can transcend other companies, Tymon says getting your brand message right is crucial. “Think about what you want to try to get across and to who? What’s your target market? You can’t create a brand and expect it to appeal to everybody, so you need to be quite focused in what you are trying to do. And don’t copy somebody else – try and do something a little bit different. Think about the purpose behind the brand.”

Tymon says: “A few years ago it was all about gastropubs, they were the thing, everyone copied that. But generally I think pubs need to try to be a bit more innovative in their approach and try to get people to take notice of that.”

Luxury popcorn brand Joe & Sephs is flagged up as an example of how to be different. “They took a product, which was seen as quick and cheap and easy to produce and not terribly exciting, they gave it a new look and style and made it exciting. They’ve been innovative with their product style, like BrewDog.
People saw that and thought ‘we can do that too’.”

But Tymon suggests that pubs might want to look outside the industry for inspiration rather than following a trend when they want to try something new.

Chang says it can also be useful to “look backwards” to see what has worked before and put a twist on to it.

Lessons learnt

Toblerone

Problem​ – The triangular Swiss treat wasn’t so sweet for consumers when it spaced out its iconic chocolatey chunks to save money. Customers felt cheated and a PR backlash ensued as fans really did mind the gap.

Lesson​ – Changes to your brand need to be subtle and preferably add value for the customer.

Royal Mail

Problem​ – In 2001, Britain’s prestigious mail carrier rebranded to become Consignia but not everyone read the memo telling them what a good idea it was. Nobody understood what the name meant and its logo was widely derided in the press. Subsequently, the Royal Mail brand was reinstated.

Lesson​ – Think carefully if you’re changing something that has heritage and longevity. Familiarity does not always breed contempt.

TGI Fridays

Problem​ – Once known for its cocktail theatrics, this restaurant chain lost a bit of its mojo when it decided to step away from its USP of ‘flaring’ bartenders that toss bottles and glasses with seeming ease.

Lesson​ – Your brand could be devalued if you stop doing something you were originally known for – you risk losing the thing that makes you stand out from the crowd and that gave you a competitive edge.

True to its roots

One brand that understands the need to stay current is Harvester, which is part of pubco leviathan Mitchells & Butlers (M&B).

As a name synonymous for decades with family meals out, the 200-plus site brand has come under growing pressure from new entrants into the casual-dining sector. As it celebrates
its 35th anniversary, Harvester is responding to this competitive threat by evolving and refreshing its brand with over-hauled menus and souped-up customer service.

“A lot of the brand as it stands today is very true to the roots of when it was first established,” says Sarah Gamble, head of restaurants division brand marketing at M&B. “The iconic salad bar, its freshness, is pretty much what most guests would talk about first as being a key part of the brand. Our values are it’s fresh, fun, tempting and iconic. There is great awareness across the UK of what the brand does offer.”

But she admits that competition from other outlets has become more aggressive in the past 10 years, prompting a fight back centred on brand redevelopment and innovation. This includes the launch of food to take away and brand sauces that can be bought on-site and used at home – its Red Devil sauce is a hot topic for guests on social media, apparently.

Gamble adds: “We created a couple of ‘hot houses’ last year, one in Basildon and one in Maidstone, where we push the boundaries of the brand to understand what might work estate-wide down the line.

“In those two sites, we’ve gone back to our roots and brought rotisserie front of house so people can see the chickens and experience a lot more theatre.

“We’ve created ‘secret gardens’ by using space the sites had already, hopefully enabling people to enjoy the outdoors most of the year, weather permitting, with fires, bringing the outdoors in.”

She says the two sites, which have been running since last summer, will be used to influence menu development estate wide and remodels going forward. But not every element trialled at the ‘hot house’ sites will be rolled out, only those that are right for the estate.

Chang maintains that brand renewal is crucial as people become familiar with the existing offer. “People like a surprise,” he says, suggesting Harvester was right to look around to see where the threats were coming from, then responding with a refreshed offer that remains true to its ethos of decent food at a good price.

Clear communication

Staying true to your core values is the best way to create, build and evolve your brand, whatever those values may be. BrewDog was very small early on, says Tyman, but it created a bit of noise and got a lot of attention – remember the brewer’s 16.5% Tokyo Intergalactic Stout, which was “the UK’s strongest ever beer”. As it built the brand, it didn’t really change in terms of ethos and look and feel, it’s just become more refined.

Measuring the impact of your brand is important if you wish to avoid similar incidents. One way to do this is via net promoter scores, which record the ‘temperature’ of what your customers think of you.

Tymon says: “The energy that it created moved the market along. But [the value of a brand] is mainly being able to communicate a message really clearly, get people’s attention and excitement, and it captures everything, including potential investment.”       

It’s no good promoting yourself as a friendly and welcoming pub if your employees are so disengaged with their job that they don’t even look up when a customer comes in.

Branding

Training and communication are the best ways to ensure your people understand the philosophy of the company and what is expected of them. Myles Cunliffe, director of Mixology Group, highlights the importance of training at cocktail group Be At One, which has the USP of high-quality cocktails and excellent service.

“They have seen a massive increase in the number of their sites, and BAO put their bartenders through very intensive training meaning they can work in any venue and produce cocktails to spec. By investing heavily in their staff they get it back with high levels of staff retention.

“If your staff aren’t trained, they can’t deliver great service whether they are serving beers or wine or cocktails. Bartenders are part of the brand. The venue is just walls and a ceiling.”

People are your brand

It’s no good promoting yourself as a friendly and welcoming pub if your employees are so disengaged with their job that they don’t even look up when a customer comes in.

Training and communication are the best ways to ensure your people understand the philosophy of the company and what is expected of them. Myles Cunliffe, director of Mixology Group, highlights the importance of training at cocktail group Be At One, which has the USP of high-quality cocktails and excellent service. 
“They have seen a massive increase in the number of their sites, and BAO put their bartenders through very intensive training meaning they can work in any venue and produce cocktails to spec. By investing heavily in their staff they get it back with high levels of staff retention.

“If your staff aren’t trained, they can’t deliver great service whether they are serving beers or wine or cocktails. Bartenders are part of the brand. The venue is just walls and a ceiling.”

Related topics: Marketing

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