Richard Samarasinghe, head of strategy at Harrison, discusses the key considerations and pitfalls when bringing a brand from the US to the UK - and vice versa

Taking a brand from the US to the UK might, to some people, feel like one of the easier international expansions. Our two nations share many similarities, cultural points, language, and there are many operations which look, feel and function in similar ways whether they are based in New York or London. However, the path to success is littered with those brands who didn’t make it. Dig a little deeper and it is clear it’s the business leaders who, rather than focusing on the similarities, embraced the differences and adapted accordingly who have seen the greatest success.

One of the biggest challenges operators will face – and need to overcome – when hopping from one country to another is consumer expectations. A UK diner expects different things from their counterpart in the US – and being such a vast country, diners in the US can even vary in their expectations greatly from one state to another. Almost before doing anything else, when operators plan international expansion what they need to do is understand their new customer – and what their expectations are.

The UK, for instance, is a very crowded and competitive market in some sectors and to assume a brand can just land here and resonate because it is well recognised and successful back home is a risky strategy.

When US brands first stated coming to the UK around 50 years ago they were seen as glamorous, even in the QSR sector, but it’s not quite the same now with so many people having travelled far and wide and the UK market having so many brilliant home grown brands. Operators need to get under the skin of their target consumer base, which requires extensive market research as well as an understanding of cultural nuances and preferences – which can be a tricky feat to undertake when based elsewhere.

For example, we know that Americana / American BBQ restaurants are once again seeing a resurgence in the UK, with people craving comfort foods which pack layers of flavour. While a BBQ restaurant operator might think this presents the perfect chance to carbon copy their restaurant from one country to another, for a British audience they might be unaccustomed to the raw, industrial feel of some of the best smokehouses in the South, so there needs to be a balance struck between dialling up the American décor and atmosphere, whilst also bringing in touches of refinement more akin to a New York steakhouse to create the finished and comfortable feel people are looking for.


So, the real question is – how can an operator get a deep understanding of a new audience, their needs and expectations, and what will best resonate with them?

Treat it like a new opening

For an operator opening their first site in a new country, it is almost like starting from scratch. Every element of the business needs to be put under the microscope and reviewed, evaluated, and questioned to see whether it will work in the new market. This includes brand positioning, purpose, cultural adaptations, service and proposition, the way brand story is told, design, target customer – and even the logo. For those with an established business is can be easily overlooked, but it’s a crucial foundation for the next step to arm operators with data and knowledge.

However, there is a careful balance to be achieved and care needs to be taken not to strip the history, heritage and uniqueness out of a business – the essence of what makes it special and unique.

Communication is key

Once the foundations have been laid and the concept created, it’s time to look beyond the bricks and mortar and for operators to begin a dialogue with their new audience, carefully planning marketing strategies and channels. In today’s world, where we are all easily connected, again it’s about creating a balance. Operators will need to both be able to communicate their ‘new’ proposition, while at the same time ensure consistency of core values and messages. Inconsistency will be quickly recognised and pointed out.

Find your fans to create buzz

If an operator has an established business with a loyal fanbase in the US, it’s likely some of those fans will have moved to the UK – or at least have friends, family or colleagues there. Business owners should use this existing audience to their advantage. Build buzz and anticipation, encourage people to share the news, creative incentives to attract people through the doors – and it could make the difference between opening with a bang or being a bust.

There are incredible opportunities to be had, and diners on both sides of the pond are receptive to businesses jumping from one to another. The key is to not take your new audience for granted, take the time to really understand your new diners and lay the foundation for success.


Richard Samarasinghe is head of strategy at Harrison