Brandworks: creating brands so good you can taste them

Published:  April 5, 2016

The founders of Brandworks share with us more on branding for hospitality, the importance of having a strategy and the struggles of a young business. They also debunk the myth that one should never bring work home.


Brand refresh | Identity | Interiors | Visual merchansiding | PR & Marketing for Milkcow

When it comes to food, Micheal and Eleena Tan get serious.

The husband-wife duo  have made it their passion to create holistic experiences and brands around food. And through their company, Brandworks, they’ve redefined, refined and created holistic brands in the hospitality space here in Melbourne. Their clients and projects include Vietnamese street inspired food franchise Roll’d, Delhi Streets, Soft serve Asian mega brand Milkcow’s pop up store, and more.

Michael comes with a wealth of creative experience, having spent about 20 years in the industry and worked in advertising agencies like JWT and Grey. Eleena’s expertise lies in hospitality and brings with her not just her experience but insights and broad network of the industry into the business.

Brandworks_Image for Jam_580

Michael and Eleena Tan of Brandworks

“In Melbourne, the food and beverage culture is so strong and Eleena was very much in the thick of it in those days when it was really pioneering. There were some places that were on top of their customer type and base and who they connected with. Eleena and I talked a lot about how we can merge great ideas, great creative branding and design into hospitality because at that time it wasn’t very fine tuned yet,” says Michael

“So, yeah we met and did a couple of projects together, from cafés to restaurants and working very hard on the aesthetics, the food, the experience and the brand itself. That brought us forming the company today,” he adds.

desktop had a chat with the couple as they moved into their new office space in Collingwood to learn more about branding for hospitality, the importance of having a strategy, the struggles of a young business and we debunk the myth that one should never bring work home.

Tell us more about Brandworks. How old are you guys?

Eleena: We’re only about three-years-old. Our very first client was Roll’d.  This launched us into the branding side of things and we were very involved with the interiors as well, even though at that time we didn’t have interior designers on our team. We  consulted with architects to ensure that the brand is permeated throughout the space or shop.  That’s when we decided that we enjoyed interiors and how a brand can really drive that; be three dimensional and a holistic experience for the customer who walks into the store.

Michael: We’ve built the team over the years. We have about 10 staff in the team now. All of us have a strong interest in strategy, design, retail, and interiors.


Brand refresh | Identity | Interiors | Visual merchansiding | PR & Marketing for Milkcow

E: Convincing people that branding and design, that is high aesthetic branding and design, can make them money. It’s an investment. Like when you invest in a coffee machine, or equipment and you expect to get a return on investment. And I do believe that branding and higher aesthetic design can actually do that. Really well laid out menus, great way-finding signage – all of that can enhance the business.

But these days, people are realising that in order to stand out, in order to have the emotional connection with the customer, they need to be invested in not just the food but everything else. It’s hard because when people see some colour and some typefaces they think that that’s easy to do but they don’t realise the hours of design rationale that went behind that and how each detail was poured and debated over – from colours to typefaces to size – in order to create the timeless brand.

What’s a typical process like with a client? 

E: We have a clear process of how we work with clients. For us it’s about strategy. If the client won’t do that part with us, we won’t proceed with them.

M: One of things with strategy, is that it defines who you are and what your personality is. It’s easy to get into the details like, what’s the website going to look like or how the posters are going to look. But if you haven’t worked out who you are, you’re sort of stabbing in the dark with every decision you make.

Strategy is really important in determining who you are, the customer type, the mandate and the concept. And once that’s signed off, we move into branding and naming and so forth.

What we also like to do with our clients is to conduct workshops with them. We would go out to the market with them and look at places that do similar concepts to them or even concepts that are different but have similarities in certain aspects.  This way, the client can see through our eyes what we see when we do our research.

This is important because we have had times where people come and tell us “oh I really like what that café doing, what their style is. I want to do it like that”. And we challenge them: If you look like them, how are you going to be different from them? Their success might not be your success for whatever reason and this forms a really important process in the beginning.

E: This part with the workshop forms a part of the creative brief to the designers and we have a brainstorming sessions where the whole team will present their branding ideas, naming ideas, and so on. We present two concepts to the clients. Because we want to to help them understand the design rationale, and some of them do not come from a design background, we include a one-minute video in our presentation, which takes them through the design process.

When it comes to locking in a client, what do you do if their food isn’t great? It boils down to the quality of the food too, doesn’t it?

E: There are four things that have to come to play that I think will make a brand in the hospitality or any field, really: 1. the service, 2. the food, that is, your product, 3. the branding and 4. the experience.

If the food isn’t amazing, I will tell them that there’s nothing I can do. So yes, we have had these conversations with people when we’ve tried their food and it isn’t great. We honestly suggested that they see a food consultant. And because we’ve been in the industry for so long, we can give them the partners and connect them to the right people they need to make it work.


Brandworks for Roll’d

That’s a tough conversation to have and it can become ugly. How do you manage this tactfully?  

M: Everything needs to be done objectively. It’s not personal. It also boils down to the relationship you have with the client.  If you can build the trust with clients, then they know that whatever you give back in terms of feedback, or advice, it’s always in their best interests.

E: Often though, we send our team as mystery shoppers and they go out to the clients’ shops and try the food there. They would give us their feedback which we will pass on to the client. This is one way we keep the process objective.

You collaborate with interior designers, graphic designers, food consultants, the client… how do you ensure that everyone is on the same page during the entire process?

E: I think the strategy defines everything for us. It is the glue that holds us together. And it’s what we use to go back to the client if they want to deviate. Sometimes the clients come back  to us and say, ‘I showed the design to my friends and they didn’t like it’. We then ask them: Is your friend your target market? They go, ‘No, my friend is fifty-years-old or more and not part of the demographic we’re targeting’.

M: You need something that everyone can align to and that comes down to the big idea. And once we agree to the big idea, we commit to it. We don’t want to deviate. But if it does change then fine, we can change it so long it is understood and clear to all parties involved.

E: One thing we do is we keep people who are really passionate in the industry. Our entire team enjoy food and eating out and they love spaces. So there are a lot of crossovers. Our graphic designers get very involved with the interiors.  So they put mood boards together  to show us how they see the brand interpreted into the space. And it’s the same with the other teams. The branding and interior teams love working with each other because they’re each such dynamic responses to each other.


Branding and interior work for So 9

And what about your skills? You come from different backgrounds. How do your skills complement each other? 

E: These days I’m very involved with the creative side of things as well. I don’t have a professional diploma or qualification but over the years, just immersing myself in the design world and being really passionate about it, has given me the experience and knowledge. And more importantly, working with a great team of designers has helped too. It’s a real testament to say that if you have great people around you and are passionate, you can create anything you need to.

M: Eleena is one of the best networkers I know in the industry. She is the extrovert and I’m the introvert in the relationship. But we both cross over a lot. It used to be that Eleena does the business side of things and I do the creative side but that is not the case anymore. We love talking about ideas regardless. Skills, aside; I’m a real believer that if you ‘re really passionate about something, you can learn it and then become an expert in it.

You’re married and running a business together. How do you keep both the business and personal relationships working in parallel or do they merge?

M: Mutual respect and trust. It comes down to those two pillars. I respect what Eleena does and what she brings to the table. Plus we have this common passion for ideas. After hours we are still talking about concepts and looking at cool things. As long as theres a passion for it, you’re able to work out the differences because you both want to achieve the end goal.

And it hasn’t been easy. Sometimes we have had differences in opinions and sometimes we’ve had to take time to cool off and then come back and work it out. I mean, I’ve resigned from my own company many, many times and have come back to work things out.

E: I’ve learnt over the years, just as how you need to be diplomatic when giving feedback to clients, you have to keep that same diplomacy in that business relationship even though you’re married. So I’ve learnt to give my feedback diplomatically now. And not to shut down ideas and be open. But it’s been so great. We have fun with what we do. We travel together, work together and bounce ideas off each other. It’s been great.

What are your top tips to young business owners like yourselves?  

E. One, I think you need to know who you are and where you want to go. When we first started we were sort of stumbling away. For a long time we didn’t know who we were or confident of who we were. And we didn’t know what we were good at and you always think that the other agencies are so much better and that self doubt does not help. So be confident in your direction and identity.

M: Like with any kind of business, surround yourself with the right people. They can take your business from your hands and really extend it. We feel like we can do a lot ourselves but you can only do so much and that’s when you need a good team around you. Finding the right talent and investing in the talent is crucial.

E: We also did this 90 day sprint that we found to work for us really well. People usually yearly goals but you get lost in that during the year. So we set goals for three month periods. And that has helped us really focus on the priorities we have for those months and gave us something to measure ourselves against regularly. And also, this is specific to design industries – know who your targeted clientele is.  When we first started we took on anyone who owuld give us a bit of money. But we’ve become more selective and we’ve grown more confident to say that. But of course that’s not easy because of finances but it helps to define who you are and what you’re working for.  

Visit Brandworks to see their other projects and learn more.

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