WHY do we keep returning to the same restaurant? Is it because the food and atmosphere are great? Or, is the real reason that we prefer familiarity to the risk of change?
Take Ocean Basket, the fish restaurant franchise founded in 1995 by Peter "Fats" Lazarides, the son of Greek immigrant parents, with start-up capital of only R800. With 173 outlets in SA and another 30 across the Middle East and Europe, the brand has a reputation for no-nonsense, value-for-money seafood. Go to any outlet anywhere in SA and you know exactly what to expect.
A night out at Ocean Basket is as predictable as the brand’s franchise-wide decor.
Or is it? Business head Grace Harding says customers like "predictable innovation", which is why the chain is embarking on a branding upgrade that will change the look and taste of Ocean Basket.
The entire corporate identity — from logo to decor and menu — will be transformed. Eventually. For while the process has already begun, Harding says it will take up to five years for the entire chain to sport the new identity.
Restaurants are all owned by private individuals and Harding says they can’t all be expected to undertake high-cost brand renovation at once (franchised car dealers, who have to fork out millions at a moment’s notice on new signage and layouts whenever motor companies tweak visual corporate identity, will be jealous).
Apart from some high-profile, high-traffic city outlets that are expected to change straight away, most will do it in the course of their routine five-yearly restaurant upgrades between now and 2021.
But won’t that be confusing, having both the old and new identities visible at the same time?
"It’s not ideal, but these are challenging times for our franchisees," Harding says.
"Rents and other costs are going up. We won’t set out to put undue pressure on them."
Rob van Rooyen, head of strategy at Ocean Basket’s advertising agency, House of Brave, says the pace of change brings communications challenges.
Future campaigns will feature the new logo, but because there are "perceptual bridges" (similarities, to you and me) between old and new, consumers will understand the transition.
"We hope the new logo doesn’t feel like a stranger," he says.
As in the past, House of Brave will probably put most of the advertising emphasis on out-of-home and billboard advertising, rather than TV.
Harding says the changes will affect all Ocean Basket restaurants, regardless of country. "Trying to do everything at once is like trying to turn the Titanic," she says. "That’s why we must phase it in."
Rebranding extends beyond look and feel. A new "Mediterrasian" sushi range is part of a broader menu that will be offered everywhere immediately. Under certain circumstances, restaurants will be allowed to offer fish caught domestically. Even in SA, all the fish served is imported. In total, the group imports and supplies 6,500 tonnes of seafood annually to stores globally.
All this is a long way from Ocean Basket’s beginning.
Lazarides and his brother, George, opened their first restaurant in Menlyn, Pretoria. It had six tables, the only dishes were seafood served in a pan, and customers were encouraged to bring their own wine, salads, and desserts. Today, the chain serves 18-million customers annually.
Lazarides, is still engaged in the business today. His mother, Liza, continues to bake baklava and other assorted "treats" for Gauteng Ocean Baskets.
Although ill health has forced Lazarides to step back recently, Harding says he can still be a "ball-breaker". She says he has no time for anyone who complains about tough economic conditions.
"He says it is only during trying times that we are forced to think harder and create better, more innovative solutions."
It’s nearly a decade since Ocean Basket’s last big makeover. While she doesn’t agree that the look and the dining experience have become "stale", Harding concedes that brands must refresh themselves more regularly than in the past.
"It’s absolutely true that where once you didn’t have to change for five years, today you can get stale in nine months." In future, Ocean Basket will regularly tweak the brand to keep it current and avoid the need for wholesale change.
Van Rooyen says the advertising and communications campaigns supporting the brand refresher aim to refuel the "craziness and energy" that has traditionally typified Ocean Basket. "We need to recover the lustre," he says. "There’s a big difference between passion and love. We want to reinvigorate the passion. People must be excited. We have to bring back the energy of what the brand stands for."