Profiling a success story: Talking BrandWorks with Eleena and Michael Tan

At Urban Melbourne we're often provided with opportunities to meet and speak with designers and creatives from various streams of the urban industry. One such chat occurred recently when I sat down with BrandWorks founders Eleena and Michael Tan. BrandWorks exists for the purpose of curating great ideas and people that will realise the vision of their clients, offering expertise in interior design, branding and retail strategy.

MilkCow. Image courtesy of BrandWorks

So how did BrandWorks come to be? To understand this we delved into the respective professional backgrounds of Michael and Eleena.

Michael studied commerce at the University of Melbourne with an interest in technology and the IT sector. The experience and exposure of working for big advertising agencies ignited Michael's creative spark - anything was tackled from design to copyright. 

Having first known each other when they were children, Michael and Eleena met again many years later as Eleena worked with Salvatore Malatesta - one of the pioneers of coffee in Australia. 

It quickly became evident that both Michael and Eleena shared a passion for good food, good branding and good interior design and the convergence of ideologies occurred as a result of this shared interest in branding and the customer experience. They were keen to explore how some of the concepts might translate into a cafe, for example, which led to the opening of Sensory Lab with Salavatore in David Jones, which became the starting point for the genesis of BrandWorks.

Eventually by way of word of mouth other people became aware of the work that Michael and Eleena were doing and began inquiring about engaging them dup on further projects which is how BrandWorks formally came to be.     

Eleena and Mike, co founders of BrandWorks.

An initial client for BrandWorks was Rolld, helping to introduce and launch their brand into the market. This opportunity also acted as their first foray into the world of interiors, working initially with the architects to ensure their designs were in line with the branding that BrandWorks had established. This process was repeated over the first 19 stores. 

The success of Rolld in such a short time provided Michael and Eleena with momentum which led to more enquiries from potential clients and more work for their young office. 

Another well known early project for BrandWorks was the Grain Store located at 517 Flinders Lane, which they helped open in 2013. Prior to Grain Store, the building housed a floundering computer store and was located in a largely deserted area of Melbourne's western CBD. The building owner had undertaken a refurbishment program of the upper floors converting the spaces into New York-style loft offices.

BrandWorks was engaged to develop a new food concept to breathe life into an unloved area, on the west-end of Flinders Lane. We presented feasibility studies to the landlord to ensure the concept would work, and tapped into the area’s rich history of grain and stock warehousing to craft the brand.

The interiors were a collaborative effort between BrandWorks and Betty & Wolff, with each detailed handpicked and sourced from around the world to articulate The Grain Store’s heritage. Adorned on the walls, menus and seating are hand painted art works and screen-printed designs, all made by BrandWorks.  

The Grain Store on Flinders Lane. Image courtesy of BrandWorks

The Grain Store's success carried through to an adjacent 400sqm cafe which was also empty at the time but backed onto a laneway. The building owner was struggling to work out what to do with it. Eleena and Michael suggested that rather than trying to fill the space with one large tenant, that the space should be subdivided into a number of smaller tenancies, creating a retail precinct.

This precinct which occupies part of Katherine Place, was master branded as "The Archway" with the owner providing BrandWorks with the direction to curate the spaces - to go out and find the tenants rather than going through leasing agents.

Due to BrandWorks ability to incubate many smaller up and coming concepts they were able to reach out to people and pick a very niche group of retailers for the spaces. In doing so BrandWorks reduced the risk to the owner while also adding value to the precinct at large with a focus on the precinct being open all day to service the residents which live in the area.  

The Archway now houses the following tenants, some of which BrandWorks also assisted with branding and/or interior design. 

  • Altius Coffee
  • T by Luxbite (in 20sqm) 
  • Hunters Roots 
  • Mr Huang Jin
  • Delhi Streets 
  • 5 and Dime

Michael and Eleena's experience on The Archway retail precinct led them down the path of retail strategy and curation after generally only focusing on branding during the early days of BrandWorks. They're of the opinion that retail within a building or development from many perspectives is largely neglected, but if it was given due consideration from the beginning that it could actually contribute to and aid apartment sales.

Part of BrandWorks' retail strategy revolves around getting in early and developing a precinct identity and personality which provides a drawcard that then allows you to go to market but also curate the retail offering accordingly.  

I asked Michael and Eleena how early in the process would be an ideal point to become involved in the retail strategy for a development and their response was that in an ideal scenario it would be before the project went to sales and marketing. 

Eleena says generally what occurs is a building may be 2-3 years from completion, making it difficult for retailers to commit three years into the future but you can give them option of negotiating terms. This also provides potential apartment purchasers with some level of understanding as to what they can expect in terms of retail tenants within the building. 

BrandWorks have in other instances also been engaged to review the retail allocation prior to a project being lodged to town planning. A big danger according to Michael is that a number of retail outlets may be provided, but generally people are more attracted to retail precincts which offer communal areas allowing people to buy food from different retailers but still sit together.

Michael and Eleena cite the Emporium as a good example of where this is a very successful outcome from a retail point of view. 

As for their dream project? Michael and Eleena would love for BrandWorks to be involved in the Queen Victoria Market Renewal project. 

It would be a testament to all the beautiful things that Melbourne is known for. Ideally you'd get a good mix of retailers there and we'd love to see a little bit more niche retailers. It's great to see Market Lane there already, but to have a few more iconic Melbourne brands there like Mörk Chocolate, Matcha Maiden and those kind of smaller retailers that have come onto the scene and grown.

The Queen Vic Market's a major attraction for tourists so why not explore and discover Melbourne with the Market as your first port of call. Where it becomes about curating the best of the best and having well known Melbourne operators in there.

Michael and Eleena Tan, co founders of Brandworks.


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