Creating a Brand: Japanese Food, American Business

Later this year, we're going to open Shiba Ramen (details soon!).  We want our new business to be a success.  That means--to state the obvious--we a steady stream of customers who like our product and are willing to come back for more.  But how do we get those customers in the door in the first place?  And how do we get people to recognize and remember us?  Doing that requires more than just serving a tasty product.  We have to build our brand.  And then we have to project it.             

Shiba Ramen Logo.  In an upcoming post, I'll explain how we got here by taking readers through our inspirations and creative process.

Shiba Ramen Logo.  In an upcoming post, I'll explain how we got here by taking readers through our inspirations and creative process.

I've been thinking about branding ever since committing to the Shiba Ramen project.  The scope of this question continues to expand as we hammer out the details of our restaurant concept, and put the whole thing into motion.  The importance of branding, of creating positive associations and spurring customer recognition, seems to apply with special force in the super-competitive restaurant market, in which consumers are literally saturated with reasonably comparable choices.  

Over the next couple of posts, I'll explain what we're doing to create our brand in the early days of our business, before we've even served a bowl of ramen.  The purpose is to illustrate what goes into starting a consumer business and share our approach.        

Primary Considerations: Name and Logo

We've started from the assumption that name and logo are key.  It is usually through them that a business has its first chance to make an impression.  Customers see a restaurant's logo and hear its name before they ever walk through its doors, let alone eat its food.  They also give non-customers the means to identify and communicate about a business.  I'd bet that an awful lot of non-coffee drinkers know exactly what a green mermaid signifies out in the marketplace, giving them the ability to tell their coffee-drinking friends where to find the closest Starbucks.

A Face I'd Recognize Anywhere.  Chances are, so would most people.

A Face I'd Recognize Anywhere.  Chances are, so would most people.

Beyond impacting conscious brand recognition, name and logo operate subconsciously to influence our choices as consumers.  Choosing a restaurant is a zero-sum thing; if a customer eats at a different restaurant, he doesn't eat at yours.  The odds are that there are number of pretty comparable choices in terms of product and price, so things like image and aesthetics are what tip the scales.  The way a logo appeals to us may well cause us to give one business a chance at the expense of another.  Logos signal something to us, implicitly setting up our expectations about the business behind the logo.  

Unforgettable Name.  I've seen only one of these places in my life-Iowa City, 2003-but the name was permanently imprinted in my memory.  

Unforgettable Name.  I've seen only one of these places in my life-Iowa City, 2003-but the name was permanently imprinted in my memory.  

The point is that I'm looking for a name and logo that not only cause people to recognize and remember my business, but also cause them to form positive subconscious associations and expectations about it.  I have a lot of levers at my disposal--quality and cost of my product, look-and-feel of my physical space, customer service, etc.--to deepen the customer's impression, hopefully in a positive way, but only after the customer has already decided to patronize my business.  I need to make people want to come and eat our ramen in the first place.  And I need to give them easy ways to remember us after they've left, lowering the barrier to a return visit or a recommendation to a friend.     

Japanese Food With a Brand?  Does That Exist?

Here's one way we want to be different:  we want to serve authentic Japanese food while simultaneously placing a heavy emphasis on brand building, starting with name and logo.  Why do I think this is a differentiator?  Well, can you think of many Japanese restaurants with a recognizable brand?  A name that's catchy, or a logo that really stands out?  My guess is that if even if you can, the number is likely pretty low.  Even as we increase in generality from ramen shops to Japanese restaurants to Asian restaurants, I can't think of too many examples where strong branding has been deployed to create broad market awareness (let's set aside mega-chains like Panda Express and P.F. Chang's).  

LA Area Ramen Restaurants.  Jinya Ramen Bar's approach is similar to ours. It's name and logo are much easier to remember than the others. Apparently that was the intent. We're going a step further by using a more English-friendly name and animal imagery in our logo.  

LA Area Ramen Restaurants.  Jinya Ramen Bar's approach is similar to ours. It's name and logo are much easier to remember than the others. Apparently that was the intent. We're going a step further by using a more English-friendly name and animal imagery in our logo.  

One reason for this, I think, lies in the nature of the food and the identity of the restauranteur.  Most Japanese restaurants are run by Japanese nationals who are first and foremost chefs--not businessmen--and they go for the Japanese feel.  Usually small owner-operated places focused on the food, not brand recognition, and catering to a small geographical area without thoughts of expanding to multiple outlets. Their logos, if they have them, are often indistinguishable from one another, at least to western eyes.  Too many Japanese language characters, and too much use of calligraphic brushstrokes.  More modern logos seem to almost always use the image of a bowl of noodles.

This is not to disparage the aesthetic qualities or the elegance of such designs, not in the least.  The point is that a logo should be distinctive of your brand, and these kinds of logos just aren’t doing much differentiating.  In the end, we Americans simply don't have the cultural background we need to make sense of symbols and imagery that resonate perfectly well in another cultural context.  I'll say it again (three times):  context, context, context.  We might be serving Japanese food, but we're an American business.  That's how we're thinking about this.  

Next time, I'll tell you why we decided to call our restaurant Shiba Ramen.   After that, I'll take you through our logo design process.