The Business of Bars: building your bar’s identity

The Business of Bars Conference at Sydney Bar Week. Photo: Rachel Baird

WE LIVE in an era of brand ubiquity: from minute to minute, week in and week out, brands permeate our lives be it on the back bar, on your social media feed, or in your favourite choice of media. Brands are everywhere. What’s different in the age of Instagram, however, is that everyone has a brand. You are a brand. Your bar is a brand. What you make behind a bar, the products you serve, the menus you hand your guests, it all contributes to the identity of your bar.

So during Sydney Bar Week last year at The Business of Bars Conference hosted by Australian Bartender publisher David Spanton, we wanted to know what steps you need to take to build your bar’s identity, and we gathered experts in social media, design, brand strategy and hospitality to explore the topic.

On the panel we had Sydney Collective founder and the creative force behind Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel, The Morrison, and the newly opened Park Food & Liquor; Four Pillars co-founder and brand strategist, Matt Jones; hospitality-focused graphic designer Chanel Liquori; owner of co-owner of The Lobo Plantation, Kittyhawk, and Big Poppa’s, Jared Merlino; and Gemma Duff, founder of Spirited Socials.

Here’s what they had to say, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

When we talk about a bar’s identity or brand, what are we talking about?
FRASER SHORT: It’s what you create in the mind’s eye of the customer — it has to be quite clear, and it’s that thing that before they even get there they’ve got a piciture of what they’re about to or hope to experience.


JARED MERLINO: It’s all about the experience for the guest. So creating an identity for a bar is down to the product and the experience that they’re going to get from it. Creating that can be difficult, but as long you have clarity and your team has clarity on what you want to deliver and what you want people to experience, that will come through.

CHANEL LIQUORI: When I talk about identity with clients we’re talking about the visual touchpoints. We talk about the logos, the patterns, the tone of voice as well. It’s all the visual touchpoints so that what the consumer or the patron is getting when they’re there and when they leave is quite a firm idea of where they’ve been, what kind of bar it’s been.

MATT JONES: My background is brand strategy, but specifically with Four Pillars, a product brand. When you’re working with that kind of thing or with some of the clients that I advise, you’re actually telling them to be more like bars, you’re telling them don’t just think about your packaging, don’t just think about your logo, think about the overall experience — how you’re going to make people feel.

The challenge with brand is then to simplify that; brand is just the story, but not the story you tell — it’s the story that other people tell about you. The really important thing to think about is how am I making it simple for other people to tell the story about what’s great about the experience, the hospitality, what are the one or two things I want to be famous for?

Because that’s what our culture now demands, really simple stories that other people can tell, whether those other people are Bartender Magazine or Broadsheet or Time Out or a mate telling a mate. So part of the discipline of brand is what do we want to be known for, famous for, others to tell the stories on our behalf, and then how do you reflect that in everything you do really consistently, really simply.

From left: Matt Jones, Chanel Liquori, Jared Merino. Gemma Duff, and Fraser Short. Photo: Rachel Baird
Do you need to figure out your brand first, or can you figure it out later on?
MJ: What I say to any brand or business is, the first thing you’ve got to figure out is why you exist. Why do you want to exist and why do you need to exist — figure that out.

You’ve already got the big idea, you’re going to open a bar. The question is, why does your bar need to exist? Why does the culture need you?

JM: It’s more of a vision for me. When you start something you want it to be something you’ve got in your mind. You’ve got to share it with your team and they’ve got to buy into it to push it forward. Identity is one of those things that get shaped by your customers, it’s their point of view; with each venue that I’ve opened I’ve had an idea in my mind, but as we’ve progressed, as we’ve opened the doors and people have come through, the product adapts to what they want, what they demand, and then they shape your identity as well.

GD: With social media as well, you need a good understanding of what you are and what you want to be to share your brand properly online. People can pick up very quickly if it’s all crazy, if it changes every day, and it’s not on brand.

FS: I’ve done it every way. The current project we’re working on is the Mona Vale Hotel which is going to be renamed Park House, or The Park House Food & Liquor.

Once we got the floor plan looking good, we then worried about what the brand was. At the end of the day this thing could be a Chinese restaurant or it could be a bar or it could be a whiskey bar, but there’s probably a right and a wrong way to lay this thing out. So we actually, late in the piece, started to think about the name.

However, with something like Daniel San in Manly, we were super clear — we knew the name, we knew the brand, we knew everything, we knew the colours. You name it, we knew it, and then we designed it. We came at it from a very different angle.

What do you need to do when briefing your designers?
CL: There’s the obvious things you’d want to be doing with your initial meetings with your graphic designers. Open communication: bring reference images, things that you like, who are your competitors — that’s always really good. I think what’s probably less done and should be done a lot more is coming with those business objectives; we actually want to hear those. People don’t realise because we’re not marketing, [but] we want to know where you see your bar, how you want to be perceived, to that point of what’s in the heart of your guest when they leave your bar — we want to know that because it means that we’ll work towards that with you.

How do you know you’re on to a winning concept?
JM: You’ve got to do your research, know who you’re targeting, and what that brand is for — exactly what you’re trying to deliver that will differentiate you from the other thousand bars in the city, and why your experience is different to the place down the road.

MJ: Most people have shit opinions, and most people have shit language expressing their shit opinions. So you’ll show them stuff and they’ll start turning into a semi-professional graphic designer and start talking about the kerning of the logo — you think, you don’t know about that stuff! I wouldn’t ever test stuff too much, because you know if something is objectively good — not subjectively good. Get some people to look at it and go, “Is this objectively good?” Because the world likes good stuff, even if at first it doesn’t want it. No testing will reveal that, so you’ve got to back yourself on that.

How important is the design of the menus?
CL: I find when I’m designing the menus, it’s almost organic because you’ve already decided the way the brand is going to go. As a designer, you want it to align with that brand strategy as much as possible; it can be done in a clever way, it’s not about logo slapping — your logo on every single page so you remember where you are — there’s clever ways of doing it.

JM: Menus are one part of  the experience that people can actually touch. So to me it was really important with Kittyhawk, based on an aeroplane, [the menu is] built like the plane’s manual. As you go through the pages, the drinks are put down in parts, and it looks like the schematics of a plane. The idea behind it is that when people sit there, you try and tell a story, you’ve got this philosophy behind the brand, but when they sit there and look at it they get it.

The business card was one of those things, it took us a while to get there because we had to find someone who could print them, but it’s a little pop-out plane that you can make and it flies, and the rest of the details stay on the card. Everyone gets one when they sign off their bill, they take it away, and anything that can remind someone of their experience when they’re away from the venue is always a plus.

MJ: Someone much wiser than me once said don’t think of your brand as a noun, think of it as a verb. And the bar is an example of a brand that is a verb, it’s constantly active and it’s living and it’s defined by the experience. So what would that brand do when it writes a menu?