Branding Lessons from the Neighbourhood Gelato Shops

November 1, 2022

I've worked with several founders over the years as a product/marketing strategist. Though these projects were spread across different industries and geographies, most of them had a common problem - the founder's fear of branding. From my experience, most founders are intimidated by branding. They'll keep branding for the end - mostly reduced to a checklist item before GTM, often resulting in a half-ass brand which doesn't get any love. Branding doesn't have to be complicated, and in this article we'll see how three SMBs are doing a great job at it.

The Gelato stores of Corso Italia, Toronto.
I live on St. Clair West, in an Italian neighbourhood. Yes, the pizza is great, but the gelato is truly exceptional. Within a few minutes walk, I have some of the most iconic gelato shops of the city. In this post, we'll focus our attention on the following stores:

  1. Bar Ape
  2. Futura
  3. Tre Mari Bakery

We'll see how these stores have created distinct brand identities, and what can we learn from them.

Though all three stores sell gelato, they've created very distinct brand identities. I find it quite remarkable, and wish other founders learn from them. Here's how I'll define these brand personalities:

  1. Bar Ape - The badass gelato store
  2. Futura Gelato - The kind gelato store
  3. Tre Mari Bakery - The family gelato store

If you're wondering what is 'brand identity' and 'what's the big deal about it', please read on.

Brand Identity:
Believe it or not, brands are built just like humans. Therefore, we need to take a step 'inside' to explore brand identities. The way a human behaves could be linked to his purpose and motivations - i.e. the inside. Similarly for brands their identities emerge from their core, their essence, their reason for being. You can't fake a brand identity, even with all the ad-spend in the world. Therefore, for founder led businesses, the brand and founder's personality need to sync.

This sync brings clarity to unlock growth. The founders can align their product offerings and team around the brand identity. In today's cluttered marketplace, a distinct brand identity, could be a huge differentiator for any business. That's the reason we're talking about these three gelato stores, and not the countless others that claim to offer "the best gelato in town". Let me introduce you to these three one by one, and see what we can learn from them.

Bar Ape: I find everything about Bar Ape to be quite badass - the store, the brand communication, the two founders, menu, everything. The storefront is quite humble, but with a lot of personality. 'Ape' in the name is an Italian scooter, which is mostly parked on the street, next to the store, and serves as a popular Instagram prop.

I believe the badass brand identity is inspired from the founders. It drives their brand communication as well as the menu. Don't miss the videos on their Instagram handle, they always make me smile 🙂

The Bar Ape menu changes every week, creating a sense of scarcity, and drawing crowds from far and near. The menu is unique - a lot of Ontario fruits and high quality nuts. The bestseller is 'twist of both' - a curated combo of two flavours in one cup (see image below). These two flavours in 'twist of both' are always bold and complimentary, never predictable and boring.

Twist of Both

I would never expect to see Peanut Butter and Jelly (PBJ), Oreo, London Fog, or even Stracciatella at Bar Ape. That's not what they are about, Bar Ape is all about fruits and nuts, especially the 'in season' fruits. And I love how 'on-brand' their menu has always been.

Key learnings from Bar Ape:

  1. Never hide or underplay who you are. Bar Ape is Italian and badass, and it shows.
  2. If you aren't sure what your brand stands for, you can always begin with what it stands against. Bar Ape for example, stands against boring and predictable.

Futura: This store is closest to my place, hence, I am a regular. If you're planning to visit this place on a weekend, let me warn you - the line moves really slow here. It used to annoy me initially. But now I know better - it isn't a bug, its a feature. The couple (Lois and Carlo) running the store love to chit-chat, learn about your weekend plans, and talk about the flavours on the menu (if you're curious).

They have weekly menu as well, but it isn't as dynamic as Bar Ape. They are very 'classic' gelato and you'll always find Fior Di Panna, Stracciatella, and Nocciola in the menu. That being said, they do offer excellent choice of 'in-season' local fruit flavours during the summer. The gelato is undoubtedly excellent, and the behind the scenes story makes it even more special. When I learnt how they procured the Ethiopian white sesame for my favourite gelato, I loved the gelato even more!

Some keywords I'd associate Futura would be - community, kindness, and creativity. Futura often promotes other local businesses on their Instagram, including Bar Ape, which is a direct competitor. This is quite heartwarming, and I love this abundance mindset.

Key learnings from Futura:

  1. Kindness is always appreciated (and it can't be faked).
  2. Never miss out on storytelling. I love how Futura founders share the story of Bronte Pistachio and Nocciola Piemonte (and other ingredients) on their website and other places.

Tre Mari Bakery: Though not a standalone gelato store, Tre Mari's gelato section is quite popular, and the store has been a neighbourhood institution for decades. While Bar Ape and Futura are small businesses, Tre Mari has scale.

I've seen this happen countless times in my career - as the business grows, the brand identity starts to fall apart. Because no one asks - how might we scale brand identity? As the operations increase, so does customer touch points and staying aligned with brand identity gets challenging. Let's see if we can learn a thing or two from Tre Mari.

The Tre Mari gelato flavours are family friendly and they don't change as often. This is the place for both PBJ, mint chocolate chips and strawberry, along with classics like hazelnuts and strawberry.

Tre Mari is a classic Italian immigrant story, and the story is quite evident in the store and brand communication. Vintage pictures (from the 1960s and 70s) showcasing the early days of Tre Mari by the founding family are prominently displayed in the store. The tagline 'Don't forget the bread' evokes so many family images. This bakery is literally 'Italian family values' manifested. Every time I visit Tre Mari (which is quite a lot), I love seeing so many families having a lovely time.

The founders of Tre Mari have done an excellent job at training the staff. Every staff member treats customers like family, I've not experienced this anywhere else. To create a differentiated brand position the brand experience has to be consistent, and everyone at the bakery seems to understand it. Many businesses have vintage photos of their founders from yesteryears in store or on 'about' section. That's definitely a nice to have, but when you're really living the brand identity it shows. See below some artifacts displayed in the store, and the story behind one of them:

Also, check out their Instagram handle here:

Key learnings from Tre Mari Bakery:

  1. You don't have to be on top of Fortune 500 list to deliver an intentional brand experience at scale.
  2. For a big organization, brand personality and company culture are intertwined. Every team member should (ideally) live by the brand values.

I hope this post helps reduce the branding overwhelm for founders. To summarize:

  1. Let your brand be the reflection of your values.
  2. In case of a big organization, make sure everyone is aligned on the brand values.
  3. Never fake or force fit a brand personality, just don't, it won't work.
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