A fusion of form, function and flavour

Michael and Eleena Tan’s agency, Brandworks, has not only designed cutting edge hospitality brands and spaces, it’s also redesigned how a creative business can run.

                                

In the shadow of Rialto Towers lies an eclectic collection of food and drink retailers. Together known as The Archway, the 517 Flinders Lane location started as 400 square metres of unused space.

The rejuvenation and curation project is the biggest single location in Melbourne tackled by BrandWorks, a hospitality branding and design agency run by couple Eleena and Michael Tan.

Working with the landlord, BrandWorks cut the space into six retail stores, branded it and curated the space by working with young food retail entrepreneurs to fill the stores.

The agency also designed branding, interiors or both for several of the occupants, which comprise outlets for bagels, Indian food, sweets, coffee, organic juice and dumplings.

This type of ‘precinct planning’ represents an evolution of the agency’s speciality. It stems from the agency’s work in interior design, which itself began almost accidentally as an extension of brand design for hospitality businesses.

It makes sense, since a store’s environment is the most physical extension of a brand’s look and feel. Aside from the food, of course – if that’s no good, no amount of marketing magic can help.

In the years since launching, BrandWorks has become known as the first stop for entrepreneurial restaurateurs who need help taking an idea from concept to opening.


THE KEY INGREDIENTS

Prior to cofounding BrandWorks, Michael Tan spent 10 years in advertising, specialising in online media, websites and ecommerce.

He says that exposure to creative disciplines helped him decide on the career path he’d take. “I come from a commerce background, but there was always a passion for design,” he says. “I just needed to find an outlet to discover it.”

From a family of restaurateurs, Eleena Tan worked part-time for Melbourne coffee pioneer Salvatore Malatesta while studying commerce. Mentored by the St Ali chief, she eventually became operations manager for his consulting work.

“Out of that I found a real passion for the functionality of spaces and how customers interact with them,” she says.

The pair met in the mid-2000s, at a time when the speciality coffee scene was exploding in Melbourne. Food, too, was starting to gravitate to artisanal approaches and niche offerings. And with that came interesting branding.

The pair realised the importance of branding and design in the hospitality customer experience. “We talked at length about how to combine a concept with the right customer experience, branding and environment design, and food,” Michael says.

“I think we hit it off pretty well, because eventually we got married,” he laughs.

The move into interior design as an extension of branding came almost accidentally. For one client, Michael created a brand, but when it was given to the architects the resulting environment didn't match. So the client asked for help.

But with that working arrangement came tension. The interior designers employed by the client, for example, may not have been thrilled with being told what to do. So BrandWorks created its own interior team.


AN ENTRÉE OF STRATEGY

“You’ve got to start with the strategy,” says Michael. “What is this business about? What is the concept? Who’s the market? What are their personality traits? What’s it trying to achieve?

“Once you work that out, the brand and the interiors really become extensions of the strategy.”

Interpreting a strategy into brand identity design and interiors is where the creativity begins. Where a brand mark and logo are important for every business, in hospitality BrandWorks stresses the importance of the ‘secondary system’ – a visual language of colours, textures, shapes and so on. “Once you’ve got that, you can apply it to the many canvases: the space, signs, menus, uniforms and social media images,” says Eleena.

“That’s how we moved to interiors, which are about how creating that brand experience in a 3D and experiential form.”

The team has worked on projects interstate and internationally. One project in Sydney was recently recognised by a top Australian design awards program.

So 9 is a Vietnamese concept restaurant that breaks up the typical restaurant structure and invokes Scandinavian simplicity in its look and feel. Vietnamese for ‘number nine’, a lucky number, So 9 sought to be something different from the outset.

“We cut it up into three small stores in one,” explains Michael, including, “a station each for banh mi, pho and banh xeo (Vietnamese pancakes).” The team was recognised with awards for the interior and branding aspects of So 9 at the 2015 Melbourne Design Awards, and then went on to win at the 12th Annual Hospitality Design Awards in New York City.

Temporary pop-ups and small-format kiosks bring more adventure to how the team goes about its work.

“We’ve had a lot of fun on a recent project around a Korean brand called Milkcow, a gourmet soft serve ice-cream concept,” says Michael. Tweaking the brand for local tastes, they took over an existing site near Emporium in Melbourne's CBD and reinvented the design and experience.

“Those sort of projects are really fun because you can turn them around really quickly and it gives you an opportunity to create a really interesting story for the customer,” says Michael.

Asked to summarise the agency’s signature style, Michael doesn’t. That’s the point. “All the projects are interesting because the approach we take is about what that customer is looking for.

“In terms of a design direction for us, it’s not a matter of having a design signature or a look and feel that we try to emulate in every project. We try to be different and work around who the client and their customer is.”


A FUSION OF MANAGEMENT STRUCTURES

Collaboration and flexibility are themes that also flow through the way the Tans have structured the business. BrandWorks has recently moved the business into a co-working space and employed an innovative staffing structure to better harness the creativity of its designers.

“It’s a disruptive model for employing creatives and harnessing creativity in designers,” explains Eleena. “I just felt that the nine-to-five grind wasn’t really helping them.”

Designers are now employed on a retainer of two days each week. On top of that they can accept projects. Instead of worrying about billable hours, designers can take as few or as many hours as they like. They just have to meet deadlines.

Eleena explains that the retainer work helps the agency’s designers forecast their income.

For the agency’s dozen or so staff, comprising interior designers, branding designers and account services, it challenges traditional perceptions of going to work.

“It’s trying to find a new balance between freelancer and full-time. It’s not one or the other, it’s a hybrid,” Eleena says.

Designers are given a self-development allowance, and the team gets together for communal morning meetings and breakfast dates. So far, the pair says, the creative output has been great. And the employees have taken more ownership of projects.

“We realised over the last few years that the millennial demographic wants convenience, flexibility and great projects to work on. From a business owner’s perspective, that can be quite a challenge.”

The move has been good for creativity, and also from a management perspective, as it allows for more dynamic and efficient management of resources.

By moving the business to The Commons co-working space in Collingwood, BrandWorks has greater flexibility in the workstations and amenities it pays for. And it does so under a subscription model, making space, amenities and equipment operating expenses.

Having this ability to expand or contract the business’ footprint as required extends into Michael and Eleena’s staffing model. It’s a work-when-you-want model that falls somewhere between maintaining a network of freelance designers and employing a full-time staff.

“When you’ve got typical overheads, sometimes you have to chase work you don’t really want to do because you have to hit budgets and payroll,” Michael says.

The Tans say the best work they’ve done and the best clients they’ve attracted have been from previous work.

“We needed to get out of the corporate environment in the city, because it wasn’t the kind of place our designers were inspired by. Everyone’s different in how they find that creative space and environment, whether it’s walking the dog, going out for a coffee or sitting in the garden.”

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