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Marketing Lesson: Forget Getting a Reservation at elBulli

Each year some 2 million people try to reserve a dinner table at elBulli in Spain. That's a problem, because chef Ferran Adrià seats only 50 a night, and is open just half the year.

What does Chef Adrià know about marketing that puts his scarce product in such high demand? He understands that what he is serving is only partly about food. Just as Disneyland knows its theme parks are only partly about rides, and Apple knows that the iPod is much more than delivering songs.

Here is what the lucky few elBulli diners receive for their 230 euros.

In a five-hour sitting guests will encounter more than 30 completely original dishes prepared by the chef and his team of up to 40 cooks. "In addition to engaging a diner's five senses, Adrià and his team hope to evoke irony, humor, and even childhood memories with their creations," reports an HBS Alumni Bulletin article.

Says the chef: "We have turned eating into an experience that supersedes eating."

In other words, what Adrià is selling is an experience, not just food, says Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, who prepared a case study on elBulli.

How does the chef decide what will be on the menu? Mostly by not listening to the customer, Norton reports.

"Adrià's idea is that if you listen to customers, what they tell you they want will be based on something they already know," Norton observes. "If I like a good steak, you can serve that to me, and I'll enjoy it. But it will never be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To create those experiences, you almost can't listen to the customer."
So as you think about what makes up the core of your brand, think beyond the product to the overall experience you want customers to experience. Also, don't throw away customer research -- but trust your instincts to deliver to the customer something they didn't even know they wanted.