As brand consultants we are often tasked with taking our clients into the 21st century by advising on how digital platforms can work with, or replace, their offline channels. Although digital platforms are fun and shiny and new, I still think offline channels have a very real and important role to play for brands. There are in fact some cases where an in-store experience can better communicate brand values than a website ever could.
Take for example Hotel Chocolat: a British premium chocolate brand. With their slick online operation, Tasting Club membership and affiliations with high-end department stores, they truly are a multi-channel retailer. Yet aside from being a purveyor of delicious chocolaty nibbles, I knew little about their brand story. More recently however, that changed. While traipsing round Borough Market a few weeks ago, gorging myself on free samples, I stumbled across a restaurant, in a state of cheese-fueled delirium, called Rabot 1745.
Unbeknownst to me, it is in fact a restaurant owned by Hotel Chocolat and is, in effect, their restaurant sub-brand. Not only can you buy Hotel Chocolat chocolate there, but you can also have an entirely unique “cocoa cuisine” experience in the restaurant. For those of a foodie persuasion, check out their Anglo-West Indian menu here, with every dish including cacao in various guises. One would expect that since the restaurant is owned by a chocolate brand, the menu would be sweet. Too sweet. A Willy Wonka-style overly-saccharine emporium of chocolate for starter, main course and dessert. Not so. Consider the delightfully subtle inclusions of cacao in such culinary delights as:
Not so scotch egg: a hen’s egg cloaked in softened pearl barley and penny bun mushrooms, cacao nib crust, roast garlic and pumpkin puree
Slow braised cacao glazed lamb shoulder, garlic mash, buttered carrots
(I’m a foodie, sue me).
Although perhaps not to everyone’s tastes (and those high sugar chocolate fiends can also indulge at the restaurant’s bar with a salted caramel hot chocolate or two), what most struck me about the restaurant was its presentation and visual representation of the overarching Hotel Chocolat brand and its story. The reason the menu centres around cacao is because the Hotel Chocolat brand centres around it too. Their website says it all: “Making our chocolates, our mantra has always been: More cocoa, less sugar, for a healthier and more satisfying cocoa hit.” This is not chocolate in the Swiss-style of Lindt, the American-style of Hershey, or the British-style of Cadbury’s. This is chocolate grounded in the provenance and quality of the bean, straight from Saint Lucia. In 2006 they even bought a 250-year-old cocoa plantation in Saint Lucia named Rabot Estate to formally establish this link.
The décor, too brings their story and brand experience to life which, in their own words “evokes the character of a 18th Century Caribbean plantation estate house in the heart of modern Britain.” You brush past the bar, made from hurricane-felled ironwood, brought home from their own cocoa estate in Saint Lucia. You sit atop wooden high-top stools nibbling on freshly roasted cocoa nibs in Hessian sacks. And all whilst dining on the authentic flavours of the West Indies. For me this establishes the core brand essence of Hotel Chocolat with great clarity because it is multi-sensory- you can taste, touch and smell the brand in a way you simply can’t through a computer screen. Brands are at their strongest when all their actions communicate a consistent message, and Hotel Chocolat demonstrate great consistency around championing their core ingredient and celebrating its country of origin.
And although I didn’t sample anything from the menu (but I will), I actually left the restaurant feel more engaged with the Hotel Chocolat brand than I ever had been. It just goes to prove that bricks and mortar stores do play a key role in the brand narrative. They add tangibility to a brand and establish a key point of difference- Cadbury’s may have the whizz bang advertising, but Hotel Chocolat owns the cacao bean.