In conversation with

Sophie Orbaum

Director of Communications at Harts Group

Introduction

Introduction

There are certain brands we refer to when talking about great, consistent tone of voice. Quo Vadis is one of them. They are the ultimate host: the kind of person who will wrap you up in flattery, then charm you with eccentric anecdotes and whimsical delivery – and lots of martinis. Every week their newsletters take us right back to the Soho members’ club and restaurant.

At the helm of their communications – and the rest of the Harts Group restaurants, including Barrafina, El Pastor and The Drop – is Sophie Orbaum. Four years at the company has made her fluent in QV’s characterful language.

By anthropomorphising the brand (“and why not?”, she quips), you can almost hear this character gently coaxing you to stay for “just one more negroni, darling” – whether it’s in an Instagram caption or a recipe.

We spoke to Sophie about what makes a great tone of voice, how QV would wish their mother happy birthday, and keeping communities engaged when hospitality brands can’t look after them in real life.

Question and Answer

Quo Vadis has such a distinctive tone of voice – it’s unafraid to show a little eccentricity and whimsy. How did you arrive at that tone and why? Was it inspired by anyone in particular? 

When I first started at Harts Group four years ago and was doing a review of the existing Quo Vadis collateral, there was a line that struck me, “Informal business; serious pleasure.” The phrase doesn’t deny the practical realities of life, but suggests that, here, they might be approached with a light touch. Also that Quo Vadis was somewhere to really fuss over epicurean matters that elsewhere might be considered trivial. That one can nit-pick about the exact way you would like your Martini prepared here, with zero shame. The phrase remains a tone of voice touchstone and something of a mantra that I come back to when I need to.

Quo Vadis is also synonymous with its people. Jeremy Lee, our chef-proprietor, in particular, but also the Hart brothers, Sam and Eddie, who set QV up in its current guise and James Hart who joined Harts Group with Crispin Somerville to lead the charge a little before I came on board. People are often surprised that Jeremy doesn’t write the newsletter. I vampire a lot of his vocab when it comes to describing his food, because his descriptions are so unique and expressive, they become part of the wider enjoyment of eating it. The twinkly-eyed vibe of getting the important stuff done so we can focus on enjoying ourselves is pure Hart though. They say the occasional lightly smutty allusions are all me but I think they’re projecting.

To give us a flavour, how would Quo Vadis wish their mum happy birthday?

Dearest Mother,

Radiant queen and expert bestower of care and provisions, we wish you the most and the happiest returns.

Tonight there will be Champagne, Onglet, and of course, profiteroles in your honour.

Perhaps best to wear your patent flats rather than the three-inch courts tonight. Remember what happened last time.

Everlasting love,
QV x

Is your tone of voice representative of the experience you would have at Quo Vadis? 

If you’re doing it right, yes.

What about the rest of Harts Group restaurants? 

I do an exercise with all the directors, like a focus group, on the personalities of each brand every year, and it’s fascinating.

It hadn’t occurred to me that one of the amazing things about Barrafina, for instance, is its anonymity. We don’t take reservations so we don’t take guest information. Everyone queues and it’s entirely democratic. So I imagine in our audience, people having secret business meetings, illicit dates, celebrities keeping a low profile. In contrast to QV the tone assumes very little familiarity, and the content sticks quite closely to the food. Barrafina is a theatrical backdrop for the guests to create their own drama. Parrillan, the Barrafina terrace bar and grill, is similar, though by nature a little more group focused, to the tone is slightly more convivial.

The El Pastor restaurants are a little more Crispin, who lived in Mexico for over a decade and ran a nightclub with Sam there. There’s a fascination and obsession with Mexican ingredients and culture and a zeal to share these things. The tone is enthusiastic, educational and quite eccentric in its own way, hopefully mirroring the experience you have at the restaurant. You come away wanting to go to Mexico and immerse yourself more deeply.

At The Drop, we always set out to be a genuinely accessible wine bar, where you could come with little knowledge but a curious mind and never feel intimidated to ask about the list or order something new. It took a lot of observing and thinking to realise that the way to communicate this was through the staff themselves. Through using their human, friendly voices. So that informs the tone and the experience there.

“'Informal business; serious pleasure.' The phrase doesn’t deny the practical realities of life, but suggests that, here, they might be approached with a light touch. Also that Quo Vadis was somewhere to really fuss over epicurean matters that elsewhere might be considered trivial.”

COVID-19 has obviously had a massive impact on the hospitality and restaurant industry, but QV have kept their brand personality and tone intact. Why is it important to keep serious comms in the same tone of voice? 

If we allow ourselves to anthropomorphise QV (and why not?) I think it’s important not to be the person who when they feel vulnerable or shaken, suddenly clams up and gets formal or distant. It engenders greater trust, confidence and I suppose, empathy, to be oneself and open up about what’s going on, even with a little dark humour. Embarrassingly aware that sounds quite woo-woo but that’s how I approach it.

What’s a generic tone of voice that people in hospitality tend to use? 

Hospitality’s having a tricky time of it at the moment so I don’t want to be trashing anyone else’s comms tone. I suppose that like with any industry when hospitality Comms teams start speaking before asking what the product (restaurant/ bar) is, the (basic, physical and psychological) need it is serving, and who to, that’s when the trite phrases start to come out.

How do you keep your community engaged when you can’t host them in real life? 

For Quo Vadis members, we’ve increased the frequency of the monthly Bugle newsletter to weekly to try and spread some cheer. We’ve added a new ‘Show us Your Member!’ section, forgive the pun, interviewing members so that they can still learn more about each other digitally and feel connected. James Hart and I are hosting weekly QV club quizzes on Zoom and the Club is offering free fitness classes with a brilliant personal trainer called Ben Hodson, every week.

For all the Harts Group brands we’re checking in with our followers on socials, but also holding back a little until we have news to communicate that isn’t ‘we’re still shut for now and working through various scenarios.’ Everyone’s so bombarded with information at the moment that holding back is sometimes best.

The members of the Harts Group community who are most in need of communications at the moment are the staff of all the restaurants. We’re sending weekly internal newsletters with updates and practical advice and support, as well as fun activities to keep spirits up.

Which other restaurants do you admire or are inspired by for their tone of voice?

St. John’s communications, run by the fantastic Kitty, is always brilliantly true to its values in all its manifestations. Black Axe Mangal and Max’s Sandwich Shop both have irreverent tones on their social media that fit perfectly with their ‘brand personalities,’ -though they would laugh at the phrase I’m sure – and are totally unique to themselves. Hawksmoor too, more than being a high-end steak restaurant/s, always presents itself as a business that looks after its staff and customers. I think that comes through in all their brand communications.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given on communicating with your customers?

“Have you double checked all the dates are correct?” It’s easy to get so caught up in language that you take the factual details for granted. Don’t do that!

The Storylist

Sophie's Storylist

Books

  1. Wilding by Isabella Tree
  2. Fear Of Flying by Erica Jong
  3. How To Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
  4. Trivial Pursuits by Raven Smith

Magazines

  1. Noble Rot
  2. Observer Food Monthly
  3. Esquire

Newsletters

  1. CODE Hospitality
  2. St John's
  3. Vittles

Podcasts

  1. How To Fail by Elizabeth Day
  2. Work Like A Woman
  3. Desert Island Discs

Websites

  1. Eater London
  2. The Independent
  3. New York Magazine
  4. The Atlantic
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