From chicken to art to design: the evolution of Nando’s

As Nando’s announces a new focus and investment in South African design for its restaurants globally, The Drum caught up with co-founder Robbie Brozin who explained why he wants South Africa to “own the soul of the brand” once more.

With more than 1000 outlets in 23 countries as diverse as Namibia and Bangladesh, fast food chain Nando’s has changed dramatically from its humble beginnings in 1987 as cafe Chickenland in Johannesburg.

Co-founders Robbie Brozin and Fernando Duante borrowed money from family and friends to buy the standalone café and rebranded it Nando’s before opening a second restaurant in Johannesburg. The brand slowly grew to its standing today and while the core focus, naturally, is about the chicken, Nando’s is now turning the spotlight on South African design as it embarks on a new journey to furnish its restaurants globally with hand-made products, building on Nando’s love for investing in art work on its walls.

Speaking to The Drum at the Design Indaba Festival in Cape Town, for which The Drum is media partner, Brozin said the new investment comes as he wants South Africa to “own the soul of the brand” once more.

"For me every brand needs a soul and [although] our brand heritage is in Mozambique the first reasturant was in South Africa and from here it went global. It's actually very easy to lose your heritage as the business gets bigger and you can lose a sense of purpose.

"For me any business needs a strong sense of purpose, and it would be so sad if we had a business that was successful but never had a purpose, and that purpose is really the soul of Africa to a certain extent."

Brozin said that as the brand took off, South Africa became irrelevant in the Nando’s world which he described as "the saddest thing that we could do".

Owning the soul of the brand, rather than the brand itself frees up Nando's franchise's to stamp a local flavour on their stores. That said Brozin is keen to keep certain aspects as a standard and has a list of ‘Ten Don’t Fuck Withs’, which includes the logo and its ethos as a “people-centric” business.

For the new Heartfelt Celebration of South African Design project, Nando’s, which has made a "significant" investment, will initially present a small collection of curated items, such as tables and chairs, made by 12 South African designers with a view to slowly filtering those products to Nando’s restaurants around the globe.

This year the brand will open 100 new stores and Brozin said he wants 5 per cent of those to bring in South African furniture to trumpte the country’s design prowess on a global stage, an opportunity most South African designers would not have the chance to do.

"Doing a project like this where you’re coming back to the roots of the brand working with African designers, you're giving them a great platfrom to grow their own portfolio on an international basis. Most South African designers won't have that opportunity of ever displaying in London or being [seen] internationally.

The idea is not to use South African furniture as standard due to the small size of the businesses Nando's is working with, but to instead collaborate with local artists and designers in each market to offer a fusion of work.

Nando’s has a strong connection with creativity stretching back over the last 12 years to when it first put art on the walls of its restaurants. Since then, said Brozin, art has moved “from an expense that you’ve got in the restaurant to an asset” which he claimed “helps the grillers to grill magnificent chicken”.

A global art fair in London is in the works, revealed Brozin, which will see Nando's display a selection of its best designs to promote South African art as a whole. There could also be the opportunity to put some of the new furniture on display simultaneously, he added.

So is the aim of the project to change perception of the Nando's brand? "No," said Brozin, "I thinks its going to enhance the perception. We have to be evolving as a brand and we’ve got to understand some of the local pressures that are happening around the world, particularly youth unemployment and getting start-ups going.

"Nando’s is seen as a very entrepreniual company and there’s nothing better than colaboarting with start-ups in a way that suits our business as well. Its shared common value; it has to be good for us and good for the people we're working with or its not sustainable."

According to Brozin design was the key driver of Nando’s success in London, rather than the marketing and advertising push that is seen elsewhere around the globe. Indeed, the company has spent more money on designing restaurants in the UK than any other country.

“The brand in London was really done through store design… we positioned it in London in the same kind of positioning relative to the South African market but more sit-down and slightly more up market,” he said.

On the advertising side Nando’s is currently looking to create TV spots that retain the look and feel of the brand, such as it's irreverence and personality, but include local nuances to appeal to the particular audience. “They’ve got to be really local so that only the locals can understand it,” Brozin commented. “We’re trying that now, and it’s quite cool because you’ve got to find that local vein in each market.”

As part of the ongoing celebration of art at Nando’s the brand has launched the Hot New Designer competition in South Africa and has tasked the country’s under 35 creatives (both amateur and professional) to create a pendant light fitting which will then be displayed in 100 restaurants globally.

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