As brands strive to become more individual, designer Philip Watts takes a look at what chains can learn from the independents
There are two kinds of operator on the high street - the chain and the independent. It's a strange relationship - both are aware of each other, but they are very different. So what can they learn from each other?
One point that strikes me is that a number of independent operators sit at the higher end of the market, all competing with each other for the same customer. Very few brands, conversely, look for the high-spending customer - that glamour end of the market is almost entirely left to the indies.
I asked independent pub and restaurant operator Ashley Walters - a man who has made starting new concepts an art form - what he thought he could learn from his big business savvy neighbours.
"I embrace them," says Walters, who runs independents as diverse as the award-winning World Service restaurant in Nottingham and the Lizard Lunge in London. "I'm glad they are around. I love concepts like Pizza Express, Wagamama, and Nando's are a great training ground for our future customers. Their young customers will get used to the concept of dining out and in time they graduate to one of my venues."
I expected to encounter some high street snobbery from the ice-cool indies, but most of the people I spoke to were respectful of their larger cousins - and that respect seems mutual. This is perhaps not suprising when you consider every single high street chain started out as an independent with only one unit. It's also worth remembering that to most independent operators the holy grail of their offering is the possibility of a multiple operation.
So, independents are at the forefront of creativity, and clearly a quick flick through one or two design magazines will give any chief executive food for thought - stylistically speaking. But it's not just about the visual language of the venues. The other important factor is service - from going to your local and chatting to your landlord, to schmoozing with a celebrity private members barowner, it's all about the personal touch.
Waiters agree: "It's all about personality and the personal touch, regular faces and attention to detail."
All these elements require immense effort on the part of a big operator - a fact not lost on Ha! Ha! Bar & Canteen's marketing manager, Kathryn Sparks. "We behave like an independent, we are people-focused, we offer a community feel with a sense of quality and all the head office staff spend a lot of time actually in the bars," she says.
Each month they have a competition and the prize is that the winning bar staff are replaced by senior management, including chief executive Rufus Hall.
In fact, many high street brands are tuned in to independent qualities and are increasingly becoming locally based and community-focused.
Richard Worthington, chief executive of the European coffee brand Coffee Heaven, offers a unique view of UK brands because his 40-strong chain is based in Poland: "People in the UK seem concerned as to where brands are going," he says. "Branding is moving local, with operators asking themselves, ‘How do I individualise the brand?"
This individualising of brands is a result of looking at where the independents have faired well. There seems to be a lack of bullishness about brand roll-outs. Multiple operators no longer have an "I am right" attitude to sites, but take a far more geographically sensitive approach, looking at customer focus, quality and innovation.
A bit like an independent, then.