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Building your brand - an interview with 48.1

Friday, May 18, 2018


First off, tell us a little about 48.1 and what you do for food-businesses?

James - Jack and I both cut our teeth in food & drink; in fact I remember seeing you work the floor in...was it Edwinns?

Jack - (Nodding)

James - Jesus. Some things you just can’t forget…

Anyway, we both worked in Cambridge before moving to the big city. And I’ll reel off my creds because that’s what interviews are for eh?

Match Bar, Sosho, Milk & Honey (basically all the bars that once made London heady with joy and vengeful with hangovers), before a stint at Quo Vadis (a members bar in Soho frequented by the incorrigible), a spell at Soho House & Dean Street Townhouse, then off to St. Pancras Hotel Group to run their burgeoning empire.

I had my grievances, though. And two in particular:

Most restaurants, bars and hotels prioritise activity above all else and, while I can look busy with the best of them, I grew tired of seeing a whole heap of ‘what’ & ‘how’ and very little ‘why’. All too often, it compounded flawed processes, disenfranchised workers and alienated guests.

I also took issue with the wildly counterproductive practice of treating team members and suppliers with far less care than guests. Resources were not maximised, people weren’t supported to do their best work and - again - guests ultimately suffered.

So, since we started our own agency - alongside Simon, Paddy & Joe, our other co-founders - we’ve worked hard to incorporate thorough research, spent time turning that research into actionable insights and built strategies that are practical and commercial.

And we’ll always pride ourselves on our communication. That doesn’t just mean replying to emails at 11pm on a Sunday (which we need to stop…); it means asking questions, and listening a whole lot more than we speak. On that note, I’ll stop talking and pass the reigns to Jack.

Jack - You gent.

So, most recently I was leading the marketing team at Bill’s for 5 years, seeing the brand grow from 8 restaurants to 75. It was fascinating, scary, exhilarating, stressful, addictive, eye-opening and all-encompassing. So the perfect gateway into running my own thing. I managed a lot of agencies and plenty more pitch. Some good. Some great. Some - well, you know.What underwhelmed me about so many of the agencies I worked with was seeing the same templated ‘solutions’ to solve entirely unique challenges. I got it. It’s scary presenting something new. You’re putting yourself on the line to be laughed at. So, I think many play it safe.

But the sense of deja vu began to get both tiring and worrying. I could see it damaging an industry that is so inspiring and full of innovation.

On the whole, central teams within hospitality are super stretched and under-resourced - none more so than marketing departments. Agencies fundamental responsibility is to interrogate the brief and understand the wider environment before then delivering something that solves the problem appropriately, pushes the brand forward and works in the real world. Without the first part, the second part can’t happen. And all too often neither were happening.

I always had the ambition to run my own business at some point. And I felt that, alongside Joe, Si, James and Paddy, we had all the pieces in place to do it significantly better than so many others out there. And then Brexit happened. It depressed and scared me. It went against everything we believed in as a people and against everything I saw our agency standing for. Discovery, open-mindedness, acceptance, embracing difference. For all of us, Brexit was a closing of doors that we desperately wanted to stay open.

48.1% voted to remain - and that’s why we’re called what we’re called.

You may be biased, but how important is a strong brand for success in this industry?

Jack - You don’t stand a chance without it. We have a bit of a mantra for how we work here. Design without strategy doesn’t work. Strategy without design doesn’t matter. That says everything to me. The two have to work side by side for a strong brand to develop

.James - See, I don’t think we are biased. A brand and ‘branding’ are very different things. Every business has a brand. Every person has a brand. A brand is the culmination of all the promises that we make, that people hold us accountable for. In restaurant & bar terms, that would incorporate the consistency of the product, the fairness of the price, the manner in which it is presented and the crowd of people that form the team and the audience. Every business has a brand, whether they know it or not.

Jack - And the ‘brand’ is the whole picture. It doesn’t sit within the ‘design’ or ‘marketing’ functions. It used to confuse me that whenever the term ‘brand’ popped up in a meeting, the action sat with the marketing department. The brand is everything. The language, the culture, the recruitment policy, the food, the offer, the name, the flow of service, the products. And that’s before you even get to designing anything.The logo, the colours, the fonts? All crucial, but not defining. They should simply be the most accurate, persuasive and effective translation of the ‘brand’ itself.

James - Exactly. Branding formalises what is otherwise a fluid process, with the aid of design and messaging.This becomes vital as soon as you have to translate your story to someone, or you want your guests to. Which sounds like all the time...Ok, maybe I am biased.

Are there any food-businesses out there at the moment that you really admire?

James - We’re living in a golden age of accessible, excellent, inventive cooking, wine-pouring& cocktail-making in this country. There’s real talent spread across the UK, and we’re spoilt for choice in London. Independent restaurants & bars like Western’s Laundry, Leroy, The Laughing Heart, Coupette, Sapling and Brat have made our little corner of London better stocked than ever.However, life is perilous for the bigger brands right now. A combination of market saturation, overexposure, poor execution and a tsunami or rising payroll, food & rental costs are striking at the enterprise end of the market. People rightly laud Hawksmoor. They do a fabulous job of motivating, developing and retaining their team, and it shows. Everything JKS touch (Lyles, Hoppers, Sabor, Bao, Gymkhana etc.) turns to gold. By all accounts, they work everyone hard, but there’s a clear focus to each business and they’ve attracted serious talent.Leon and Paul; Pret and Patty & Bun. There’s plenty of people getting it right.

Jack: I’m going to mention two legends of the game who continue to get it right. POLPO and Franco Manca are two brands I have such respect for. It’s a seriously tough market right now - but they are both concentrating on what made them famous at the birth. POLPO are attacking these challenges in absolutely the right way. Closing restaurants is rubbish - but there’s nothing reactive about their plan. They’re pausing growth, focusing on improving the offer and investing in the brand. Sounds simple - but so rare for that to actually happen. Authenticity is such an overused term in this industry, but if you’ve ever been to Venice, it’s impossible not to feel the city’s presence when stepping inside one of POLPO’s restaurants. When you have that as a starting point, the potential is huge. With Franco Manca, they shook up the pizza industry. They’ve made people sit up and question why Pizza Express and Strada are charging £11 for a Margherita - when you can actually deliver something better and quicker - for cheaper. They held up a mirror to what is an extremely saturated marketplace. And, with over 40 restaurants now in play, they’ve retained that ballsy-ness and brand love. There aren’t many brands you can say that about.

If you could give a start-up restaurant one golden nugget of advice what would it be?

Jack - Work with us.

James - He’s joking...wait…are you joking?

Jack - I’m joking! Kinda...but in all honesty, I would say to the founder(s): stay focused and in control of the early vision. The birds-eye view is a beautiful one. There will be a million and one decisions to make. And that’s just day one. We’ve seen founders with fantastic concepts become sucked into the detail, drowning and as a result losing the early, raw, and often unique purpose of the original proposition. Where possible, call on friends, family, agencies, freelancers, anyone who can do what you can’t do yourself to help bring your vision to life. Whatever you do, don’t allow the brand to become diluted and be all things to all people. There are too many of those already.

James - Well said. Ok, one more golden nugget: Focus on being great at one thing, and good enough at the rest. I think all founders follow a similar, clumsy path to enlightenment. And there’s nothing that prepares you for running your own business, irrespective of your own experience or aptitude because you simply haven’t faced the greatest challenge yet - overcoming your own ego.It’s wildly tempting to funnel resources into every possible channel; to run 100 miles per hour in any direction that the compass signposts that day. You’re not running to please customers (that might get you to the speed limit), you’re running to prove to yourself that you can do it, and to prove to your peers that you’re worthy of their attention.Now, this sickness is what drives many a founder to be successful. But your customers probably don’t share the enthusiasm of your nervous inner monologue. I’d wager that there are more owners & operators with zero prior experience of the trade than any other industry. If you’ve worked with one, you’ll quiver at the phrase: ‘I was in this restaurant and saw x and we should have that on the menu.’ Terrifying.

You don’t have to be the best at everything.

Be known and memorable for one great thing - be it a dish, or your service, or attention to detail, or your location even - and be good enough not to be penalised at everything else. Start there. If you can nail that one thing, think about adding to it. Rest assured though, many-a-successful business competes on a single axis.

Jack & James are Co-Founders of 48.1. To read more, check out their weekly blog, including their latest series, ‘the future of restaurants.’

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