Q&A: Catherine Salloux, Ask Italian marketing director

When it comes to choosing a restaurant, today’s consumers are spoilt for choice. Ask Italian marketing director Catherine Salloux explains how the brand is transforming itself to ensure it stands out in a crowded marketplace.

Marketing Week (MW): Why did you decide to reboot the brand?

Catherine Salloux (CS): Ask as a brand will have been around for 20 years next year, so it’s developed a pretty strong awareness and following. But by 2010 it had somewhat lost its way. At the time it launched it was seen as rather cool and stylish but a newer generation wouldn’t know that necessarily and it’s now a very crowded marketplace. There’s not a lot that distinguishes similar restaurant chains in the minds of consumers.

So distinctiveness is a huge part of what we’re trying to do to help us pull away from our closest competitors. We want to create a restaurant chain where the inspiration of Italy is the heartbeat of everything we do: the food, the service and the restaurant design. One of the big changes has obviously been with the branding: we’re now Ask Italian when we used to be just Ask. I think for us it’s about the depth that we’ve created with this rebranding – I know some of the other chains have not put in the same level of thought and degree of work as what we’re doing here.

MW: Where did you start with this transformation process and what elements are you changing?

CS: Food is really where we started because it’s always the deal-clincher for restaurants when it comes to attracting customers. So for the last two years we’ve been working on our menu with a number of experts to deliver really authentic Italian dishes. The inspiration for this menu has been our chef Theo Randall, who is part of our team and is involved in so many steps beyond just creating dishes.

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We’re currently on the second phase of our menu. We knew when we launched the vision two years ago that we had to change in increments. There are so many touchpoints with a restaurant that you can’t hit people over the head with a huge number of changes instantly.

Another key element is the service. With this vision of being lovers of all things Italian, we’ve developed a culture over the last two years that we call ‘Italian education’. That involves working with our expert friends to share knowledge with our restaurant teams, from information around our seasonal specials to specialist training for staff who want to develop a better understanding of our coffee or wine.

MW: What have you done to revamp the restaurants?

CS: All of the inspiration is rooted in Milanese design which is bright, colourful and contemporary. The idea is to break the paradigm of Italian restaurants in England where the design is generally Tuscany-inspired dark woods and tablecloths and Chianti bottles among the décor.

Our design team goes out to the Milan Design Fair and you can clearly see some of the inspirational touches that we have drawn from there in the tiling and the careful layering that still gives you warmth.

About a third of our restaurants have now gone through this redesign process. We have 126 restaurants across the country and they all have the new menu, the uniform, the music and we’ve changed tables and small wares across the estate.

MW: How do you plan to take the new brand vision forward?

CS: Much of my job over the next year or two is to start making people aware of these changes. There are cost effective ways of doing that beyond your immediate restaurant space – PR probably being the biggest opportunity for us. That means generating awareness about the brand, what the brand stands for now and getting both lapsed customers and new customers to re-appraise their perceptions of Ask.

One of our big initiatives is our partnership work with Great Ormond Street Hospital. We deliberately haven’t got too involved with charity partners while working through the transformation but we’re at a point now where we’re able to re-engage. Great Ormond Street is a great fit for us: it’s aligned with our values – families and kids are very important to our business – and it has national reach.

So we have developed an Ask Italian cook book that has a dual objective of creating funds for the charity while also being a fantastic statement of how far our brand has come and what we stand for. We were able to leverage some of the Great Ormond Street celebrities who have a link back to Italy and are huge champions of the hospital, as well as some of the great stories from Italy that already exist within our business. The book will launch with our Christmas campaign in the middle of November and will form a large part of our communications plan in the next six months.

In addition to PR, we’ll also have a big focus on CRM over the next year. We have a database of over one million customers that we’ll look to harness more effectively.

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MW: How have staff responded to all the changes?

CS: I think the biggest test of how our vision is working is the engagement of our internal team. If you can convince over 2,000 employees that what you’re doing is meaningful and motivating and works for customers and communities then they will get behind you and we’ve got a tremendous energy in the business at the moment. Now we need to bottle some of that and get it out to more of the external world.

MW: What has been the response from customers so far to this brand transformation process?

CS: We’ve been operating in a recession as a backdrop to this but our transformed sites are outperforming to the tune of double digits compared to the estate that is untransformed. Our customer responses are generally incredibly positive: customers get it and like it. We’ve recently switched to a company called Empathica which really allows customers to feed back in deeper ways. We track key metrics – the big one being likelihood to return and recommend – and those metrics have all been very positive.

There are always areas for improvement but overall I think we’ve created something quite distinct and different. I think what we’re most pleased about is that on the food front and on the service front, we are really beginning to push the market – with service especially. We’ve worked so hard on the friendliness of the teams and the naturalness and genuineness of the service and that’s really resonating with customers.

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