Translating your brand internationally: what does it take?

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The world as we know it is becoming increasingly smaller as our desire for travel increases. In fact, 25% of OpenTable diners tell us that they have travelled internationally with the main aim of dining at a specific restaurant, and 33% of our diners travel internationally at least once every three months.* So, what does this mean for restaurateurs?

Last month, we sat down with Restaurant Magazine and a selection of top UK restaurateurs to hear their thoughts, experiences and recommendations on taking a restaurant brand global. From doing your due diligence and selecting the right country to tailoring the offering without damaging your existing brand, we asked Aubaine, Casual Dining Group, Hakkasan Group, M Restaurants and MEATliquor to walk us through the best ways of expanding your business overseas.

Are you ready to go global?

Global expansion is no mean feat, as our panel of operators know. The considerations are endless; from finding the right location, to choosing a suitable partner to help you market to both local and international customers, while all the time staying true to the original format.

As a starting point, look at whether you have an existing customer base in the country you are looking to launch in. Martin Williams, Founder of M Restaurants says “When Gaucho went to Dubai, we used OpenTable data. We had so many guest emails with a Dubai address or brands with offices in London and Dubai and we captured and used all of that data.”

Have you done your homework?

Major business decisions require due diligence; research should never be something that ‘you get to at some point’. Taking the time to think through all possible scenarios based on your business’ strengths and weaknesses is especially important for international expansion.

Mark Nelson, Managing Director for Concessions and Franchising at Casual Dining Group advises: “You have to identify where you will sit in any new market and work out if there is sufficient growth there. I’ve looked at Japan and I think we would struggle if we tried to open a Café Rouge there, for example. We’ve opened a Bella Italia in New Delhi, and one of the issues we’ve faced is that disposable income per capita is relatively low – around a dollar a day – so you need to come up with an offering that not only stays true to the brand but fits in with local culture and in this case, salaries.”

Alix Pickard, Director of Marketing at Hakkasan Group adds: “You need to research the market – does it have potential? In the US we chose Las Vegas for Hakkasan because it had the right nightlife and daylife. The location and the teams out there made sense for us. We are about to open our Yauatcha brand in Houston and Hawaii because we see the growth potential in both those markets.”

Marketing that resonates locally while staying true to the brand

You need to be prepared for cultural variations which come with a specific set of customer needs. This sometimes means that you need to adjust your approach or, in some cases, your entire restaurant concept.

“Where Hakkasan wouldn’t work we have created the Ling Ling brand, which is more drinks and music-led. It recently launched in Marrakesh and we have a big global rollout planned for it. It’s an example of coming up with a tweaked concept for those markets where you shouldn’t be rolling out the original brand.” says Alix.

Alix continues: “There’s a fine line between keeping the brand at the heart of what you do and adapting to local markets. Some of the US sites are incredibly similar in menu and design to London, while in India, 50% of the Hakkasan menu is vegetarian. We are launching five sites in Saudi Arabia over the next five years and that is a very different market – it’s dry for starters. We’ve had to adapt the name Sake no Hana because sake in Japanese means alcohol and Saudi Arabia would not accept the name, so it will be called Sato no Hana.”

You always need to make allowances for local customs and culture, however sometimes the local market just doesn’t fit with your brand. Scott Collins, Co-founder of MEATliquor explains: “We had tons of requests to open in the UAE and Dubai, which made sense as people from these places form a massive part of our clientele at the original MEATliquor. However, Dubai would be tough as we couldn’t have liquor in our name which would mean us sacrificing our brand.”

Top takeaways

Overseas expansion is always going to be a personal experience and to an extent a gamble. However, if you feel up to the challenge, here is a quick ‘top tips for globalisation’ recap from key industry leads:

  • Research, research and research some more: Don’t leave it to chance, talk to the locals and see how they feel about your restaurant offering.
  • Buddy up: Martin Williams explains: “It is very easy to underestimate the power of local knowledge. If we do something overseas it will be with partners.”
  • Stay true to what you are: Yes, you want to make your new venture successful, however that should never be at the expense of the restaurant you have.
  • Market to your existing regulars and global diners: Make sure to tell your regulars about the new place so they can visit if they travel. Our diners tell us that recommendations and diner reviews are the most important resources for decision making when travelling internationally so add your menus and reviews in English as well if it’s a non-English speaking country.
  • Use the UK connection when appropriate: Hani Nakkach, Founder of Aubaine explains: “You have to be very careful because it can have positive and negative effects; people can look at you as just another chain. But in Dubai for example, saying that we come from London is a positive thing. We try to communicate the stamp of quality from London, but we must be careful how we do it.”

If you feel you want more information on going global with your restaurant brand, here’s some more resources:

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* 2016 OpenTable survey of over 12,000 diners in the US, UK, Australia, Germany, Mexico and Japan

Photo credit to Miranda Parry photography

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