Full service 360 brand design agency secures partnership to develop a further 150 sites across Europe as part of their ambitious growth plans
Marugame Udon appointed full service 360 brand design agency, Harrison, to be their strategic brand and design partners as they took on the challenge of opening 10 restaurants in England across 18 months. Since the first concept opened in Liverpool Street in August 2021, the Japanese udon noodle-based casual dining restaurant has gone from strength-to-strength – and so has the partnership. Marugame Udon has now appointed Harrison to be the lead brand design agency on all European openings to incorporate their core principles throughout.
Bringing Japanese Philosophy to UK Diners
The art of Wabi Sabi is embracing imperfection. This includes cracks, tears, distorted figures, and details which add character. The concepts allow people to appreciate the beauty of imperfections and how, with time, they become even more beautiful. The term Wabi Sabi is composed of two kanji characters. Wabi refers to the appreciation of a tranquil way of life, whereas Sabi refers to the beauty of what is old and worn. For Japanese people, Wabi Sabi is more of a feeling, rather than a concept.
The principle of Wabi Sabi is at the core of Marugame Udon, and one Harrison has focused on from the original idea creation right through to the latest opening. It can be felt in a multitude of different elements in each individual restaurant – from the knots, wears, and tears in the materials used, to how the team developed the graphics. Everything links back to the principle of embracing the imperfections.
Integrating the Marugame Udon Principles
Expert storytellers within the global branding, interior design and architecture industry, Harrison works collaboratively with its clients to develop bespoke brand strategies and core foundations which feed through cohesively into every element. This includes the design of the marketing collateral, to signage, uniforms, and menus, to the illustrations and graphics, and crucially into the overall customer experience.
While well established in its home market with its parent company operating more than 850 restaurants in Japan alone, Marugame Udon had no recognised presence or customer base in the UK. The team at Harrison was tasked with creating a concept and subsequent strategy for the UK market which would:
- Showcase the authenticity and simplicity of Marugame Udon – keeping the business true to its roots, whilst adapting the brand to become accessible for a European audience.
- Positioning it as a trusted, authentic reliable brand which, in Japan, would be part of an ‘every day ritual’
- Target a predominantly younger age group – millennials and ‘older’ Generation Z
- Stand out and have a clear point of difference from other existing UK Asian options
- Take diners on a Japanese journey, inform and educate on culture and important philosophies such as Wabi Sabi – especially during a time when many people were unable to travel to Japan
Kevin Grima, Creative Director at Harrison, comments: “One of the biggest challenges when we began working with Marugame Udon was the timing. Our relationship started when travel to and from Japan wasn’t an option. This meant everything had to be developed virtually, drawing on the combined decades of experience across the team and our unique international knowledge.
“This did, however, create a fantastic opportunity for the restaurant launch. Rather than people having to travel to Japan for an authentic Japanese dining experience, which was a huge challenge, Marugame Udon could bring it direct to the customer’s doorstep. Unlike many of the high-end sushi restaurants which are out of the everyday price range, Marugame Udon delivers something which is affordable and would be part of accessible, daily in Japan.”
Telling the Marugame Udon Story
The team at Harrison wanted Marugame Udon to be a restaurant which stood out from the crowd, and to have such a strong connection to Japanese philosophies and Udon noodles, even if the name was removed people would understand the concept.
The brand strategy and concept fed into two crucial elements for this to happen: storytelling and customer journey. For example, the story of Marugame Udon begins when customers enter through the kitchen, instantly awakening the senses – sight, smells, and sounds from a busy working kitchen are all there to build anticipation and excitement for the experience to come.
Outside the restaurant, LCD screens give a birds-eye view into the kitchen, with live feeds to allow passers-by and potential customers to be drawn in. Neon noodles hang from wooden beams to replicate the traditional process of hanging and drying noodles. The story is told through all the senses.
Small details underpinned by Wabi Sabi continue to heighten and tell the brand story through the imperfections incorporated throughout. Layers of different touchpoints for the consumer which, when combined, create a true sense of authenticity. These include:
- Open kitchen to showcase the fresh, healthy, quality ingredients and the skills of the chefs. Diners are essentially entertained by the goings-on in the kitchen as they order their food.
- Tray service – part of daily dining in Japan, in the UK it brings connotations of rundown food halls and retirement homes. Harrison wanted to bring the ‘tray’ concept to life for UK diners.
- Japanese details which incorporate Wabi Sabi principles applied to design, for example high tables are made using sustainable, local materials but using mortar joints that go back to Japanese joinery, and flooring with knots and kinks as opposed to uniform perfection.
- Using traditional landscape imagery. Harrison’s inspiration was taken from end profiles of Japanese roof tiles to form textured clay wall features.
- Art commissioned from Japanese diaspora celebrates emerging creative talent and creates another connection to the restaurant’s Japanese roots.
Kevin Grima continues: “We wanted to create a brand and tell its story in a way which would best resonate with people in the UK but would remain true to the Japanese philosophies. It’s an ongoing process, and we have evolved with each site. For example, as we saw how customers interacted with the spaces and elements such as tray service, we have added, tweaked and adapted. Each site encompasses more of our core philosophies, such as Wabi Sabi and embraces imperfections unique to each building. And where relevant, we have brought in more western-isms, such as serving beer.
“In order to have the ability to evolve with each restaurant, we built a strong relationship with the Marugame Udon team, allowing us to work collaboratively and create the best space we could, every time. It’s this trust, coupled with the hard work of our team and the way they immerse themselves into every project and brand, which is why Marugame Udon have appointed Harrison to create the global Marugame Udon brand. We are just at the beginning of what we hope will be a strong long-term partnership, and we look forward to what’s to come next.”
Keith Bird, CEO, Marugame Udon, adds “Udon noodles are relatively unknown to European palates – with trial and adoption well behind ramen noodles in the Asian market sector. This made it critical to find a strategic approach to communication which overcame barriers to trial, and reassured guests about nutritional benefits and how and when to enjoy this new addition to their meal options.
“At Marugame Udon, we felt Harrison implemented a level of strategic depth which meant they not only understood what we wanted our brand to be, but did so while staying true to our company’s foundations. We are incredibly proud of what we have created together so far – and look forward to many more restaurants in our future with Harrison, both on UK soil and further afield.”
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