Monday, January 26, 2009

Turd on a Doily: What would Le Notre say about this differentiation strategy??

In the world of fine patisserie, it seems no effort is spared on quality. Every item that is placed in that shop window looks as good as it possibly can, in the hopes that it will attract customers and build the longevity of the enterprise.

The finest grand patisseries in Paris such as Le Notre, Pierre Herme and Dalloyau have achieved legendary status only by focusing on excellence. In every imaginable detail. In my observation, none of these establishments would willingly make any one of their creations look less appealing in an attempt to make another of their products stand out. Each creation is different, and each appeals to different types of tastes and budgets, but everything must look (and of course taste) as good as possible.

Clearly this strategy makes sense. When everything in a shop window is as good as it can possibly be, the chef or the business ultimately gains more: more attention from passers-by, a stronger reputation, and of course more sales. Not everyone looking at the display will be attracted to buy the same things. But in applying a base strategy of excellence for all goods, the people who crave chocolate overload get their fix, whilst the others who want a bit more fruit & cream find something of interest. And the real beauty of this strategy is that even when a customer can’t decide between that ├ęclair and the tartlette, he or she might just buy both… or return again tomorrow to further investigate whatever was beautiful enough to stick in their memory. The fact is, when the cakes always look and taste their best, people appreciate what the shop stands for and more importantly, they keep coming back.

It is this lesson in merchandising I would like to pass on to some of my marketing colleagues in my everyday world of fast moving consumer goods. As a Design Manager, I am being asked more frequently by my Marketing colleagues to make the appearance of some lower-tiered products look less attractive so that the other more expensive tiers of the same brand will thus look better and sell more. Hmmmm. Applying my patisserie logic, I just don’t get this…especially when all items are effectively part of the same ‘shop window’ (ie, the parent brand).

Oh I fully understand the need for differentiation between product lines. And it makes sense to make the expensive tiers look like they deserve the price premium. But apply the differentiation logic in reverse and you’ll just crash into a wall. How can you downgrade the appearance of one product line and still believe that all the other products from the same window will succeed? It is counterintuitive.

To make my point in a very extreme way, imagine if one of these big patisseries displayed a dog turd on a doily just to boost sales of the other items in that shop window. Undoubtedly, it would achieve differentiation (possibly also creating a riot)…but for obvious reasons it would defeat the entire display and kill the reputation of the shop!! When a differentiation strategy erodes the expectations or reputation of the brand (or the category), you risk sending the customer walking to another shop (or in this extreme example, RUNNING!).

It really doesn’t matter if you’re selling pastries or disposable diapers… there is only so far you can (and should) go with the brand reputation. Sometimes Marketers forget that low-tier does not mean cheap or low quality. Rather than looking visibly less good, differentiation choices should be based on providing what is essential to the consumer in that segment without the extras. For less premium products, this may mean using fewer embellishments and focusing on the core benefit desired (or expected) by the consumer. In a patisserie, this differentiation approach might require using less luxurious garnishes, but certainly the shop would never go to the extreme of omitting a key ingredient or making the decoration look so awful it wouldn’t meet base expectations. Doing so would irreparably damage the reputation of the whole enterprise.

In my case, I advised the brand manager that we could cut back on a few color embellishments in the printing of the product graphics, but we would certainly not eliminate this printing all together (which was his request). I tried to explain to him that totally eliminating all printing may leave a consumer to be tempted by a better looking competitor brand in the same segment (a competitor which is undoubtedly trying to look at least as good as our brand). But more importantly, it would jeopardize consumers’ correct usage of the product, ultimately disappointing them and eroding their trust. So for me there was no further need to discuss this. While he didn’t offer a better argument and eventually relented, he was not happy with my resistance to his request. But since I consider myself a shop owner, not just a window dresser, it was as far as I was prepared to let him tamper with the display.

Gaston Le Notre, one of the world’s most legendary chefs who passed away earlier this month, summed it up well. "French pastry-making taught me to be precise, to have discipline, and that my name goes on every product," Le Notre once said in an interview. "If I see that things are sloppily done, I lose it."

Gaston, I totally appreciate what you mean. Surely in this quote you were referring to your temper, but oddly enough it could mean losing something even harder to regain …consumer trust!

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