Among one of the first brands that stood out to me when I first visited Ho Chi Minh City was Marou Chocolate. The branding was understated, clean, and timeless. Who was behind the colorful, iconic design?

Check out Rice Creative’s documentation of the conception to delivery of Marou Chocolate’s brick & mortar location, Maison Marou Saigon

Over the last few months, it became known to us that Rice Creative is the design brainchild for several brands around the city, including Marou Chocolate. Founded in 2011, Rice Creative has established itself as one of the top design studios in the country, winning global awards for design along the way.

The team comes from an international background, led by creative directors Chi-An De Leo, Joshua Breidenbach, and Gregory Jewett. We were also joined by their Head of Strategy Vu Quan Nguyen.

We met up with their team for an afternoon coffee at Rice Creative’s offices overlooking Ben Thanh Market to learn about their work and their design standards.

Rice Creative Interview with Chi-An De Leo
Chi-An De Leo

Are Vietnamese brands becoming more globally minded and aware?

We love working with Vietnamese brands that are looking to establish themselves on the same level with other cultural brands around the world. It’s a distillation process. What is Vietnamese without being cliche? For example: what is it about a totally modern Japanese restaurant in New York, that makes it still feel like you’re in Tokyo? What is that Vietnamese “thing” that defines Vietnamese modern identity and culture? Does anyone know that answer yet?

All branding agencies have their challenge. What is your business about? That’s the question we ask. There’s one project we are working on currently. It’s brick and mortar, a Vietnamese food and beverage concept. It’s challenging because it involves bridging a concept between New York and Vietnam. We need to remain authentic to both destinations. We’re careful of who we work with. We love working with clients doing something good, relevant, forward-looking.

Rice Creative Interview with Rice Creative Interview with Vu Quan Nguyen
Vu Quan Nguyen

What is Rice Creative’s largest and proudest project to date? How have they set the standards for design within the company and in Vietnam?

Projects keep getting bigger as we continue to expand our expertise and capabilities. The most exciting ones are still being worked on. Looking back, we’d say Marou Chocolate may be the largest. It started small, but has continued to grow and last. We’ve been working on it for five consecutive years. We helped define and build their branding from the beginning, starting with a meeting over basic chocolate samples in the kitchen of one of their founders.

We also just beefed up their brand architecture, structuring and developing two new product lines set for release this year. Maison Marou, their cafe and retail shop on Calmette, is a project we helped create from scratch. We helped define what the brick and mortar location means to the overall brand. We created the identity and the design with local architects Hoanh Tran and Archie Pizzini. We’ll help conceive the next steps for branding, as they continue to sell around the globe. It’s helped set standards for our team as we continue to expand throughout the region and globally. Marou takes the cake for the most involved, longest, and largest project to date.

The proudest is a project we did for UNICEF here in Vietnam. We developed a new kind of fundraising platform special to markets under similar political and economical constraints like Vietnam. We helped double the organization’s fundraising goal for projects from a quarter to nearly a half million dollars soliciting from nearly 100% local Vietnamese donors. It was a proud example for us. A clear demonstration of how creativity can make an enormous positive impact.

Rice Creative Interview
Joshua Breidenbach

What about Rice Creative’s own projects? Like your own brick and mortar locations.

We’re looking into it. We realize that through client and public feedback, that we are a brand in itself and that we stand for something.

Give us your team’s elevator pitch. What is Rice Creative’s design philosophy?

Good is in the details. Good because it is relevant. Good because it makes sense. Good because it does good. Being good is great. Responsibility. Ownership. Participation.

We talk a lot about good. In the beginning things were less organized, it was just two of us. We built a culture around the clients we selected to work with, the projects we take on, and the people we surround ourselves with. After a few years, we realized it was all about doing good.

Rice Creative Interview with Chi-An De Leo

What led Rice Creative to base itself in Ho Chi Minh City?

Inspiration. Branding in a new, emerging market. The drive to travel and challenge ourselves. Being different.

Rice Creative Interview

What excites your team about Vietnam? What keeps your team here in Vietnam?

Not knowing what is next. Some of us have been here for 10 years and it’s still hard for us to walk down a street without snapping some photos. We’re constantly surprised by a culture we didn’t grow up in. It enriches our daily lives and we’ve learned so much from being in this dynamic culture.

Rice Creative Interview

Thanks for sharing with our readers about the Rice Creative story! Now onto some questions about living in Vietnam and what you guys are noticing about what’s trending in the new Vietnam…

Where can someone spot your team on a Friday night in Ho Chi Minh City?

We’re all nomadic when it comes to going out. It probably means that no venue has really suited us yet. Another thing is that Ho Chi Minh City is changing quickly and new spots are always opening up. It’s part of our research to try to keep up 😉

If we are faithful to any one place, we do find ourselves at The First Bar pretty often. The promise of genuine and well mixed spirits in a simple environment beckons.

Rice Creative Interview with Joshua Breidenbach

What sort of new places would your team like to see in Ho Chi Minh City?

Chi-An: A real bookstore. Everyone has internet access. Why not access to proper books?

Josh: It’d be nice to see more places with soul. Destinations using local ingredients and places with more singular, iconic identities. A place like Opposite Mess Hall in Bangkok comes to mind. In Vietnam, Pizza 4P’s is getting there. Though I’d like to see even more places doing what Pizza 4P’s is doing. Local, but globally-minded. It’s amazing what succeeds here. Despite having poor concepts, even the worst restaurants manage to establish themselves in this market. This trend will eventually phase out. Restaurants with no identity that dominate here today won’t last tomorrow. For many it’s a quick way to make money then get out.

Rice Creative Interview

Vu Quan: A modern museum. I’d like to see more workshops. Also the nightlife is basic. Ho Chi Minh City is well known for its rooftops, but nothing culturally more edgy. Think Silencio or Le Baron. Those are my favorite spots in Paris. There’s nothing like that here. Gigs and concerts? Nonexistent here. How do we talk to marketing leaders, CEOs, or business owners in casual settings? There are few places. There’s no casual nightlife hub that doesn’t involve bottle service on a rooftop.

Growing up, what were your dream jobs?

 

Joshua: An archaeologist. The idea of traveling around the world digging up stories. Luckily the branding path professionally has proven to be almost identical.

 

Chi-An: A pilot. I started flying and visiting a lot of countries from a very young age. I remember my brother and I were so used to flying, we did our first solo flight from Europe to Asia at the age of five and seven.

Who should we speak with next?

Here’s a few that come to mind…

  • Food and Beverage: Tran Nhat Quang from La Viet Coffee
  • Technology: Sonny Vu from Misfit
  • Architecture: HTA+pizzini Architects