Why are so many cafes and hotels following the same rulebook? Why is the brand experience reduced to this same tired style? GDR’S Martin Reid considers how to balance customer expectations without compromising brand values
Earlier this year, Taco Bell announced plans to test and roll out four new interior design formats for its Californian restaurants in a bid to appeal to its younger audience. The four designs are called Heritage, California Sol, Urban Edge and the Modern Explorer, and each one varies in colour palette and design aspiration.
You could be forgiven for not being able to instantly recognise the differences between all four formats. They all share the same common tropes: reclaimed wood, exposed ceiling beams, open plan seating, and an overall minimalist and new industrial aesthetic. As Fast Company quips, these formats embody “every hospitality design cliché of the last decade.”
Granted, it may be a cost-effective solution for Taco Bell to roll out such similar-looking formats. However, it is another example of how a hospitality brand is mimicking the genericised style of local, independent chains down to the last exposed brick.
Newly opened or renovated coffee shops, street food shacks, and now even hotels and co-working spaces, all share this same stripped back, homogenised aesthetic that has been replicated on a global scale by independents and big brands alike. Ironically, the spread of this style is justified as a response to a new generation of customers who crave authenticity and who value ideals of localism.
Journalist Kyle Chayka coins this phenomenon as AirSpace, where social media and a globalised workforce have influenced a homogenisation of experience and aesthetics in hospitality. In just about every aspirational cafe and hotel from San Francisco to Seoul is the guarantee of faux-Scandinavian furniture, roasted coffee, free Wi-Fi, and shallow references to the site’s or brand’s history.
I’d say that challenging AirSpace is one way hospitality brands can confront upcoming businesses such as Airbnb, whose core values are anchored in a confused idea of the relationship between homeliness and localism. What feels so local and genuine about staying in guest rooms and apartments in Munich or Manila if every residence is equipped with the same inoffensive furniture and identical amenities? The desire to offer something different and authentic as part of a brand experience to customers is stymied by this safety net of convenience and familiarity.
One can say many of these brands are simply just giving customers what they want and expect. Yet many fail to meet the mark since their approach isn’t truly authentic. For example, Starbucks recently introduced a casual dress code for its staff. Reminiscent of the film Office Space, the dress code celebrates individualism and self-expression – but with prescribed limits. Hipster baristas can wear their favourite flannel shirt on the job, but not if its plaid clashes with the colour of Starbucks’ aprons.
Restaurant and hospitality brands could learn something by recognising what authenticity means to customers. One of the trends we presented to our clients last quarter, Reactive Authenticity, explains how brands can fit more naturally into the culture and contexts of their customers, in ways that prove themselves as real and meaningful. Brands need to find a balance between giving customers what they want, while still finding ways to keep things interesting and acting on their own values, even if it means going against the status quo.
Prada’s Pasticceria Marchesi is intriguing for this reason. Its founder Miuccia Prada wanted to preserve a piece of Milanese culture against the rising tide of homogeneity and the lack of appreciation and historical understanding of art and fashion. The cafe features real art and fashion pieces that are accessible for the public to view, and its service and staff code is defiantly traditionalist – no plaid shirts here.
Another interesting approach to localism and authenticity is W Hotels’ Être avec toi restaurant in Montreal. This restaurant regularly invites local artists to redecorate its walls, ceilings and furniture with graffiti. The environment acts as a talking point and truly engages with its community, and the restaurant staff are well versed in the authorship and narrative of all the graffiti around the restaurant.
Maybe a route towards authenticity comes from ventures such as New York startup Spacious, which uses the downtime and empty tables at dinner-only restaurants to create daytime co-working spaces. Participating venues open themselves up to new, local audiences, which they can experiment and engage with. Each venue has its own individual character, but let’s hope these venues don’t fall victim to AirSpace, as their service proposition and design appeal waters down to accommodate the desires of absolutely everyone.
There are certainly advantages to design conformity and providing reassuring, convenient spaces for customers. However, I think that if brands want to deliver truly meaningful experiences, whether in their next flagship or suite of hotels, they should do something that challenges, rather than caters to, customer expectations. Brands must meet customers’ needs without compromising or diluting their brand identity. Otherwise, they will become generic, forgettable and just like every other neutral retail and hospitality space.