Hunting for pearls: Special Group goes back to basics for The Oyster Inn

There was a new addition to Waiheke Island’s hospitality scene late last year when the The Oyster Inn opened its doors. And from the food to the service to the interior design to the look and feel that ties it all together, it’s been very well-received. 

Heath Lowe, special group’s design director, says he worked with stylist and interior designer Katie Lockhart in the past and even shared some studio space when he sold furniture, and she was enlisted to wave her magic wand over the Oyster Inn. So, after she suggested a few design agencies to the owners Jonathan Rutherfurd-Best and Andrew Glenn, Special Group got the job to do the branding. 

He says the interior had to match the owners’ idea of service. And the brand had to match the interior, so, like the establishment itself, it ended up being something that’s “modern and new and unique, but that still feels homely; something familiar but still surprising”. 

“We wanted this brand to be about the experience. It’s the same as a good ad idea,” Lowe says. ”We found the insight and we spun all the creative around that insight.”

He says the obvious answer would be a literal representation of an oyster, but that was something it wanted to avoid and the main insight was that the owners did everything themselves and “did it to the nth degree”. 

“It was so personal for them, so it had to be a signature,” he says.  

All the sign writing was done by Tony Barnett, who painted every letter of the alphabet to create a bespoke typeface and then hand painted every sign in the establishment. And the colour palette was limited to yellow, black and white (Lowe says many luxury brands prefer simplicity and, given Monocle’s Tyler Brûlé was in town for the opening soiree, it’s interesting to note the similarities between the two colour palettes). 

Keeping it simple and personal has worked very well for Al Brown, Lowe says. And Jamie Oliver’s range by Pearlfisher also taps into a similar homely feel.

“They didn’t want it to be about Jonathan and Andrew, but they wanted it to be a signature experience,” he says. “It’s about premium food, premium surroundings and attention to detail, but it’s somewhere you can still go in your flip flops. It’s quality without being snobby.” 

Judging from some of the reviews, the authenticity and personality of the place shines through strongly and, whether consciously or unconsciously, Lowe says customers seem to appreciate the extra effort that’s been put in to create the vibe. 

“You wouldn’t have gone through the pain of hand painting all the signs for a value brand,” he says. 

Special Group has become one of the rare few agencies in the country—and probably the world—that has been able to combine advertising and design effectively and the principals firmly believe both disciplines should be around the table at the outset, as Michael Redwood wrote in a recent edition of NZ Marketing. 

For most clients the main business problem
is tackled by design thinking. This is what adds value right at the heart of
the issue, before a communications strategy has even been developed. Design is
generally engaged earlier in the process, often before the product or brand even
exists. Advertising agencies get the call when it’s
time to articulate the results of this critical thinking. But when you think
about it, wouldn’t it be better to have the people who are going to be actually
selling your brand involved in the process from the outset? In theory, a company that integrates design
and advertising should be superior to the individual parts. But in reality
there are very few companies that successfully deliver both disciplines.

Most advertising agencies employ designers,
but generally speaking they are there to craft the execution of advertising
campaigns. And design agencies occasionally make forays into advertising. But
that never turns out too well. It is actually surprisingly rare in our industry
for agencies to have balanced offerings with equal strengths in both design, and
communications … The smartest marketers have always known
that every brand touch point is, in effect, an opportunity to communicate with
their customers. That’s actually a pretty good definition of advertising, I’d
say. And the successful agencies of the
future will be the ones that can apply the smart strategy, design and creative
thinking our industry is known for, in the unlikeliest places.

Lowe feels the work it has done for ecostore and Four are the best examples of its philosophy in action, and “knowing where it was going to go from the beginning and keeping it in the same language”. 

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