The era of authentic and why we can no longer build brands on cultural stereotypes
In recent years UK has been flooded with new types of foods and cuisines, and within London specifically there has been a huge boom in restaurants offering food from around the world (89 cuisines from a 2018 count), and in more and more ‘authentic’ ways. Arguably the biggest buzzword for restaurants in recent years has been ‘street food’ – letting people buy into the idea that they are experiencing an authentic part of a cuisine and culture.
Striving for authentic food experiences through the medium of ‘street food’ is part of a wider change in mindset as more people travel and live abroad, and experience more cultures outside their own. While international street food is defining our new appetites, there has also been a shift in how these new restaurants use design to brand themselves and the dishes they represent.
More than ever branding lies at the heart of how these restaurants communicate their offer and deliver an authentic experience. Part of this is graduating from existing design stereotypes and tired symbols used to denote a culture, and defining a holistic brand though design, not just a country of origin. It’s about giving consumers a more specific branded offer.
Branding of foreign consumer food products itself though, still lies in quite a stagnant place. We currently live in a country where supermarkets stock udon noodles, halloumi and chipotle sauce as standard offers, and although the UK now has everything from locally produced sake to kimchi, very few new brands have captured a mainstream market with international foods, and many locally produced readily available ‘international’ offers are reliant on obvious stereotypes to sell their product.
By resorting to generic stereotypes for brand and pack design – think dragons for China, cacti and sombreros for Mexico - a brand itself becomes associated with the generic, as stereotypes function as a generic indicator of a culture or country. Although this is an easy way to communicate to a consumer what they’re getting, this forgoes personality and any emotional connection with the brand. It means that the design and positioning for these brands are up for grabs and can easily be replaced by another generic option.
Like building any strong brand, there needs to be a point of difference and emotional essence beyond just the product itself. There is a sweet spot that the street food and restaurant brands are on to with considered design aesthetics and modern incorporations of culture without reliance on stereotypes, to give consumers a more genuine experience with the food they are buying into.
As more and more localised ‘foreign’ products emerge and consumers grow accustomed to an ever available mix of international products, strong brands that can form authentic connections with consumers will stand the test of time. Design understanding will evolve and become more sophisticated, and the same cues that may have attracted consumers in the past will no longer be effective to draw people in.
On the other side of the world, Japan has been able to take whisky, a distinctly Scottish product, and create unmistakably Japanese whisky brands that have established a style and aesthetic for their whisky both locally and internationally – and they certainly didn’t need to cover their bottles in tartan to do so.
- Mari Carroll, 27 March 2019