A former Captain Shang live stage performer at Hong Kong Disneyland, James Gannaban got his start in F&B in Lan Kwai Fong, working on the floor from 6pm to 3am, six days a week. Eventually he moved onto event sales, then honed his skills in marketing before taking on his current role as Director of Marketing & Communications at Pirata Group. James spokes to Telum Media about the Group's pandemic efforts, his favourite festive campaign and F&B forecasts for 2023.
F&B in Hong Kong has gone through major ups and downs in the past few years. What best practices have allowed your team to keep marcomms efforts fresh and engaging?
Always be able to answer the question, “So What?”
Ask: Why is this relevant? What’s the point of all this? Why should consumers pay attention? Is this enough to make them open their wallets? Is this not just more noise?
Don’t spam. If it’s not head-turning, it’s not worthwhile. If you’re not proud of it, don’t put it out.
Make the right offers available at the right place, at the right time.
Pirata Group launched an “All Day Lunch, Drinks on Us!” campaign during the harshest dining restrictions in Hong Kong. We opened our restaurants for one service stretch from 11am to 6pm and offered a 60-minute free free-flow. We worked with our suppliers to pass on every saving to our guests at a time when the collective mood was so low and people were looking for an escape. Our underlying campaign message was “Together for the better.”
As heart-warming as our message may have been, we still had to be supported by good food and great service. Which is to say, you can have exceptional marketing but if the product doesn’t live up to the promise, the market will leave you behind.
In addition to eight new outlets in Hong Kong, Pirata Group ventured into Shanghai with two openings in 2021. What was it like devising the marcomms plan in Mainland China?
A go-to-market plan has similar components whether you’re entering a new market, launching a new product or introducing a new menu. You’ll need to consider digital, PR and comms, social media, perhaps some live or offline activations, then budget and timeline. After the launch phase, the annual marketing calendar needs to be filled in.
The critical aspect of working in Mainland China is in deploying WeChat, Weibo and Dianping; working with in-market media and lifestyle websites; and using local KOLs to drive awareness. Our Shanghai restaurants are in Jing An Kerry Centre, so there’s also simply working with the landlord’s own marketing channels, aligning calendars and activations and optimising existing mall traffic to boost conversion.
The festive season is always a busy time for F&B. What’s a favourite holiday campaign from Pirata Group?
Our seaside Italian bakery, Pane e Latte, was an instant social media sensation when it opened in July 2021. However, it had the lowest rate of repeat visits in the past year across the Group. Since its marketing is destination-inspired, this year, we built an entire festive programme worthy of a revisit.
The restaurant has been transformed into “Winter Mystic Forest.” Guests are welcomed with warm cinnamon fragrance, plush floor-to-ceiling garden arches and snow-kissed pine. Inside, there’s a plethora of festive baked goods, including panettone bomboloni, ginger custard croissant and free daily treats for kids, in addition to a giant Christmas tree with hidden Pane e Latte goodies. The gelateria downstairs has been transformed into Santa’s Grotto. Shows include Santa meet-and-greet and live carolling from a cappella group, Senza.
We’ve packed the place with many Instagram-worthy moments to make every visit a cherished memory for families that come through our doors.
What's in store for Hong Kong’s F&B market in 2023, and how can marcomms professionals prepare for that?
The outlook is generally positive, with travel reopening and restrictions easing. Simplicity is often overlooked, and it can be as easy as auditing guest-facing comms and making sure information is readily available in English and Chinese, where relevant.
Although home delivery apps are here to stay, experiential in-person dining will never be replaced. Beyond automated comms, smart retargeting and AI-served campaigns, there’s still a great demand and appreciation for human creativity in F&B marketing.
Employee shortage is a real threat. The pandemic has caused incredible burnout for people in our sector, many of whom are immigrants. F&B marketers will find greater need to effectively capture and market company culture internally and externally to keep good people in and attract fresh talent. It’s not just about competitive salaries, growth opportunities and “good work life balance” - which is passé. People want a good life, period. Work is simply a component of it. We need to show that we can provide workplaces that respond to post-pandemic shifts in values.
Hong Kong is still behind the rest of the world in terms of sustainability and sharing stewardship over our broken food systems and global resources. Established businesses without meaningful ESG policies in place need to start immediately. Investors, consumers and even potential staff will want to know that the company is responsible not for the sake of greenwashing or escaping scrutiny but doing good because it’s what’s good and right. And that alone should be enough.