Why professional clothing is more than just a nice appearance

Practical chic: workwear from the catering company Bonvita.
Bonvita / Dreamland
Practical chic: workwear from the catering company Bonvita.

Michael Brandtner considers the visual positioning of companies to be very important, but often underestimated. For the brand expert, workwear can profitably convey the brand image, especially in the hospitality industry.

Michael Brandtner, specialist for strategic brand management and associate of the positioning agency Ries Global, is surprised in an interview with that the visual positioning of brands is underestimated in gastronomy, as in other economic fields. In an industry in which not only the taste but also the appearance of a meal is a decisive factor of enjoyment, the clothing of the service staff can also contribute an important piece of the mosaic for a convincing overall impression.

"Clothes make the man" is the proverbial saying. But how important is clothing or fashion for the external perception of companies?

A key example of the importance of visual positioning is provided by the 2012 Olympic Games. Adidas was visually present as the main sponsor, but Nike achieved a much stronger perception with the eye-catching shoes worn by around 400 athletes. This shows: The visual positioning of brands is important - but it is still underestimated by many companies, also in the hotel and gastronomy industry. It is always astonishing that companies pay least attention to the advertising spaces that are most favourable, including clothing.

What is the reason for this?

In many cases, too much attention is focused on the logo and on advertising, while the overall visual impression of brand perception is usually lost from view. Many marketing managers give too little thought to how to differentiate themselves, especially at the point of sale.

What is the challenge here?

One challenge is also to stand out from the competition. Take the example of ambulance services. The ambulances are the most visible recognition feature here - and their design pays off the Red Cross brand for most companies operating in this market. In order to differentiate itself, a company active in this field should therefore start with the vehicle and design it in a clearly different colour.

What does this insight mean for the catering industry?

Hospitality companies should take a close look at what the most important customer touch points are. This is where the visual differentiation should start and then extend to other areas.

And what do you see as the key point here?

Clothing is something very essential because it shapes personal contact. In a gastronomic establishment, as a customer I usually perceive the staff more than the background of the location. Just as with a watch, you tend to look at the hand rather than the dial.

What does this mean for the design requirements?

A decisive factor is how much courage a company has to really stand out. Of course, workwear has to be comfortable and functional. In my opinion, however, the motto "Who dares wins" also applies here. For chocolate, for example, purple is the worst possible colour, yet Milka's success proves the company right. As long as you don't overstep the boundaries of good taste, you can be very daring.

Ries Global

However, CI issues and even professional fashion are more about long-term time horizons, whereas fashion is a very short-term business. How can this dilemma be resolved?

A central aspect is the question of how comfortable the employee feels in his clothing in terms of cut and materials, and whether the clothing is perceived as modern. This should be the focus of fashion considerations in workwear - rather than short-term colour trends. The choice of colour or colour combination of workwear is nevertheless an essential decision, as it will have a longer-term impact in developing a consistent corporate image.

However, especially in community catering, it is also about messages such as trust and hygiene. Poison green, for example, is likely to be an eye-catching colour in this context, but a rather awkward one.

I can determine with my choice of colour whether I am perceived as fresh or friendly. Since many are concerned with the same color psychological issues, this leads to professional clothing becoming more and more similar as well. However, this offers the opportunity to score points with a deliberately opposing strategy. That's why I don't consider poisonous green to be a deterrent colour at all, even in community catering, for example. Gourmet Menü Service, the market leader in Austria, for example, uses black staff uniforms and very eye-catching green ties to create a striking appearance with a high recognition effect.

However, professional uniforms are not exactly in vogue - on the contrary, even among bankers "casual" is now the order of the day, and not just on Fridays. Doesn't this trend counteract the importance of uniform clothing?

It is precisely the move away from uniforms that can be observed on a broad front that offers companies opportunities to use them to differentiate themselves. Since employees are the most important visual point of contact in the catering industry, it is worthwhile to start here.

If we look specifically at contract caterers in company restaurants, their visual design scope is rather limited by the corporate design of the various companies in which the caterers operate.

If, like catering companies, you "dance at many weddings", it is particularly important to have a memorable appearance in order to be visible as a brand. Contract caterers in particular also stand for certain taste expectations with their visual appearance in company restaurants, for example. A change of operator to a differently positioned company also has an effect on the taste expectations of the guests. This effect should not be underestimated. However, depending on the client, one should have the flexibility to nuance and, if necessary, weaken the distinctive profile with a modular approach.

The external effect of workwear is one thing, but what significance does it have for the internal effect, such as identification with the company?

Here, too, it is important that employees feel comfortable in their clothing. Modern and comfortable cuts and materials are the be-all and end-all. One criterion for a successful choice is that the employee also wears the workwear in private. The success of a company increases the scope for bold decisions when it comes to workwear, as success is an important factor in identification. In general, it is not only what one wears that matters, but also how one wears it. In this respect, training courses, for example, can raise employees' awareness.

Corona has brought hygiene issues to the fore. Can their importance also be conveyed through clothing?

Clothing should of course be clean, but it plays a rather subordinate role in hygiene issues. Here, for example, the design of the entrance area is much more important in order to signal to guests that hygiene requirements are being observed.

In recent years, the topic of sustainability has also become increasingly relevant in the fashion context. Does this also apply to workwear?

It depends very much on the overall corporate strategy. If sustainability is a high priority for the entire company, this should also be reflected in workwear. As a single selective measure, it is nothing more than greenwashing and does not have a positive effect.