What makes us human? This question has baffled scientists and we certainly have thousands of traits that differentiate us from other species, but at our core lies our unique way of life and our social and cultural relationships to one another. We are a social species. So, for a brand to be human, its priorities need to include the fostering and nurturing of human relationships and the feeding of the collective good. The brand narrative needs to be based on emotions and these emotions need to be real. Now, all of this would have worked fine 30 years ago, but it’s not enough nowadays. If a brand really is a human brand, then it needs to concern itself with our future on this planet, which grows uncertain with each day. Human and positive brands put humanity’s needs first.
1. Shake Shack
Danny Meyer’s signature chain, Shake Shack, stands at the top of our list for one big reason: their employees are their top priority. Not only does the brand invest heavily in staff training, but the employees are also prioritized over traditional shareholders, and they can actually become shareholders themselves! Meyer famously stated once: “Restaurants are like a public square. They’re an adjunct family for the people who work there and dine there and for the people who grow products and make wines. You’ve got to understand that everyone has a stake in the game.” Meyer is also known for having a no-tipping policy (that is, until COVID-19), which was built to overturn the assumption that someone would only be nice when expecting a generous tip and vice versa, the misjudgment that people think they can punish bad service by reducing the amount of tip for their server. It goes without saying that aside from their rising popularity around the world (before COVID-19, they were expected to open 30 restaurants in Mexico by 2029), their rising net income shows brands are stronger when they care for their employees: 24.1 million USD in FY2019 compared to 21.9 million USD in FY2018.
If you have ever been to Oaxaca, the things that immediately come to mind when you hear that name is Mexican sunshine and amazingly good food, and this is what Wahaca is all about! Their colorful and dynamic branding embodies a vibrant personality that resonates with their target audience: people who are looking for high-quality ingredients, but in Mexican comfort food. Let’s be honest, quesadillas sometimes work better than a hug! Not just that, Wahaca is built with solid, sustainable pillars. First, their motto “street food that won’t cost the earth” is present in every corner of the restaurant… literally. Their restaurants are built with recycled materials, their clad walls in their Soho restaurant used to be the floor of The Slug and Lettuce and the floor in their Southbank Bar used to be the walls from Dishoom. Moreover, all their food waste is converted into compost and biogas. Their second pillar is the fact that since 2016 they have been the UK’s first carbon neutral restaurant group, which means they offset their energy usage by purchasing renewable electricity, resulting in a net zero carbon footprint. Their third pillar is their sourcing. They support local British farmers and only offer sustainable and free range options. It’s safe to say Wahaca’s sustainable, visionary and human narrative is reflected in the fact that they have the highest percentage of Tex-Mex stores in the UK: 7%.
If there is something that can make the heart grow fonder, apart from food, then it is music…and Dishoom is like having a Chef DJ. This brand consists now of eight restaurants scattered around the United Kingdom with many awards in hand, including Best Restaurant in the UK by Yelp! (in 2015 and 2016) and Restaurateur of the Year by The Catey’s in 2018. Their concept is built around Mumbay cafes run by Parsi immigrants: from their nostalgic signs to the live music in place: golden age Indian jazz (1940s). Dishoom’s founder, Shamil Thakrar, was taught the business principle of profit, but he has found success in “quality over revenue”, stating: “Business consists of human beings who have emotions — this is the engine of business…and everything has to be harnessed to that energy.” He has certainly experienced the success of a human brand, in 2018 Dishoom posted EBITDA of 5.6 million USD, with a turnover of more than 50 million USD. Before the pandemic, Dishoom served more than 40,000 diners yearly and employed around 900 people.
4. Bao, London
It only takes one quick look at Bao’s webpage to realize what this brand is all about: less is more with a touch of emotion. They started as a market stall in a parking lot in East London back in 2013 and now have 3 restaurants and a cafe set to open in November 2020. Bao’s brand message is set on conveying their far away Taiwanese heritage, while striving to support local producers: they only offer same day caught fish and Cornwall-aged beef, while their pottery is made by local ceramicists. Their “less is more” mantra is present in both the space and the offering. Their restaurants’ interior design consists of small and plain wood-focused environments, while their reduced menu, concise and based on the same ingredients: food that goes well with buns like lamb shoulder or fried chicken. Businesswise, they are able to maximize their profits by engineering their menu around their specialty. Furthermore, the Bao in Soho has been awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand for four consecutive years.
5. Mad Mex
Don’t let their name fool you, the minds behind Mad Mex are anything but mad. In 2018, this Mexican food chain restaurant in Australia underwent their biggest change since their opening in 2006. “Fresh Fuel for Life” is the name of the campaign launched alongside their vibrant rebranding, one that highlights their Nacho Libre theme. With this campaign, they added a vegan, gluten-free or vegetarian option to all their items on the menu. These plant-based options reflect the growing trend of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles in Australia: 11% in 2019. Aside from incorporated environmentally-friendly packaging, they also started a program that helps young athletes reach their full potential. After they focused their brand on these great causes, during FY19 the company reported a growth of 6.5% and 70 consecutive weeks of sales growth, making it their strongest year.  In 2019 they went more international, opening stores in Malaysia and Singapore, with more than 60 locations in place in Australia and New Zealand.
Humanity comes first, personal interests last. Shake Shack, Wahaca, Dishoom, Bao and Mad Mex are five human brands that sparkle with positiveness and have managed to prove that having our collective interest in mind is very good for business right now… as well as tacos! But mostly our collective interest.
 – Global Food Losses and Food Waste – FAO
 – The Wall Street Journal
 – Wahaca – Sustainability
 – Eauvation
 – High Society Investors
 – Business Insider
 – Vegconomist
 – Business News Australia
 – QSR Media
 – NY Times
 – El Financiero
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