Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer


What if we thought about Marketing the way this restaurant thinks about dinner?

One of the best things about being a marketer is that your work intersects almost everything. (It’s not like being a professional shepherd, say. The disjoint is greater between the work of sheep-herding and the rest of the world.)

One of the worst things about being a marketer is that your work intersects almost everything.

We’ll be standing in line at the post office, and a woman behind me, whom I know vaguely from somewhere (maybe our kids played soccer together?), is telling me about renovating her house. She’s figured out who has the best take-out. She knows all the best laundromats. She wonders whether she might launch a crowd-sourced online resource for locals who might value such information…

The next thing I know, I start verbally mapping out a whole website and marketing plan for her.

My teenage daughter is standing by my elbow, attempting to ignore the conversation. Later, when we’re back in the car, she teases: “You know, not everything in life requires a content strategy.”

But doesn’t it?

For marketers, the Venn diagram of work and life is a perfect circle.

It’s almost irresistible to link pretty much anything to our business.

A Google result for “What marketing can learn from” delivers 350,000,000 results: What Marketers Can Learn from Netflix. What Marketers Can Learn from Trump. Or Hillary. Or Zoolander. Or Prince. Or Beyonce’s Lemonade. Or Super Bowl 50. Or other marketers. And then Trump again.

What Marketing Can Learn From

Too much of a good thing can be too much of a good thing, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Which explains why I often feel a kind of allergy toward things like What Marketing Can Learn from “Chewbacca Mom.” (1.9 million results, and climbing.)

What Marketing Can Learn from Chewbacca Mom

 

Then sometimes a situation presents itself (a particularly infectious Star Wars fan, or a woman in the post office queue), and you can’t not draw a parallel.

Such was the case with Maaemo.

I don’t even know where to begin to describe what it was like to dine at Maaemo, a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Oslo and one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.

The kitchen—located in a glass box overlooking the dining room—sources ingredients from throughout Norway, which doesn’t sound like a big deal until the wait staff describes the process, farms, and food behind each of the 20 courses as they’re served over 5 hours.

(Seriously—20!) (Seriously—5!)

No menus. No ordering. You just have to roll with it… because what shows up is pretty adventurous:

  • Porridge with shaved, smoked reindeer heart and brown butter
  • Fermented trout with spring lettuce
  • Charred onions and quail egg (fanned into a pineapple?)
  • Brown cheese tart
  • This gumball-sized thing called a liquid waffle served over mountain tea made from wild herbs found only in Bøverdalen
  • …and 15 more “experiences” with oysters, frozen blue cheese, scallops, squid, pork belly, salted sheep fat, artichokes, and I don’t even know what else.

And that doesn’t include the wine/beer/sake/cognac pairings.

So what’s all that have to do with the business of marketing?

None of us have a nursery full of newborn vegetables.

Or a barn full of cured and smoked animal bits and parts.

We don’t even have a fjord from which to scoop a mackerel for light pickling, or access to a freelance nettle forager.

We sell software or services or un-sexy “solutions.”

Maaemo wasn’t memorably remarkable just because of the food, though. It was just as—maybe more so—memorable for its slow, deliberate, intentional approach to its business.

So let’s do this already: What can marketers learn from Maaemo and Esben Holmboe Bang, its 30-year-old Danish chef?

What if we thought about our marketing the way Maaemo thinks about its food?

1. A Bold Brand Story: Creating a Backbone

Maaemo translates into English as “all that is living.” That close-to-the-earth feel forms the backbone of its story: The kitchen doesn’t go to Whole Foods to source its scallops.

(Actually, the scallops are presented tableside, still quivering. Let’s hope they didn’t have a sense of their impending saucing.)

“We want to have a clear identity,” the Chef says. “I try to explore the landscape of Norway in my food.”

Chef Bang

His words conjure up images of the bucolic and pastoral—of lambs frolicking on a charmingly grassy knoll.

But “exploring the landscape” actually means mining the woods and fields and waters of Scandinavia for stuff to eat.

It means not sugar-coating where the food comes from. And it means the chef himself gets his hands dirty.

There aren’t many restaurants that include dark, raw, visceral stories like this right on the homepage.

Chef Bang establishes himself as a kind of badass: This sheep doesn’t exactly commit suicide.

What this means for you:

Is your brand story rich, real, and (at least slightly) rebellious?

Is your story guaranteed to repel some people, as much as it galvanizes others?

 2. A Slow Burn: Creating Anticipation

Maaemo sent a confirmation email the day prior to our reservation. The staff had begun prepping for our visit, it said. We were to dine at 7:30 PM, but they would begin prepping the actual meal at 8:30 AM that day.

You couldn’t help but wonder… at noon. At 2. At 3: What are they cooking now?

The email was a small gesture. But it powerfully conjured anticipation in our heads.

“Customer empathy” gets tossed around a lot in marketing. But it’s really about aligning yourself with your customer’s point-of-view.

Warby Parker does something similar to fuel anticipation. My friend Steve Garfield ordered a new pair of glasses, and here’s the subject line of the confirmation email Warby sent:

Steve Garfield email

What this means for you:

What’s your customer’s likely mindset now? (Or now..? How about now…?)

How might we best communicate with them, each step of the way? (You can call it “customer journey,” if you insist.)

3. Inspire Sharing: Creating Value in Unexpected Moments

Companies or people that try too hard to inspire social sharing are one of my pet peeves. Yes, I mean you speakers and presenters who include a phrase like “tweet this” on a PowerPoint slide. Or blogs or sites that include a “tweet this” popup or call-out.

Such devices signal…

(1) That you don’t trust your audience to find an experience or phrase that particularly resonates with them, or

(2) That you care more about amplifying your message via your customer’s social reach than you care about serving the needs of your audience…

You know, the people right in front of you.

At best, it comes across forced. At worst, it comes across desperate.

At some point during the evening at Maaemo, the staff invited each table of diners to ascend a circular staircase to visit the glassed-in kitchen. It felt like a pilgrimage to witness the theater and magic of the meal prep.

Staffers were friendly and congenial—no snobbishness here. They offered to take a photo with us; we didn’t even have to ask.

Here’s the photo with the kitchen crew along with my good friend Sean Duffy (who arranged this experience of a lifetime), Michael Brenner, and me.

IMG_1091

Know your audience.

Create value at unexpected moments, as my friend Mitch Joel says.

And trust your audience to do the rest.

4. Slow Down at the Right Moments: Creating Momentum

Summer is the restaurant’s busy season. Besides the normal work of running the restaurant, the staff is also preparing and preserving food to last them through the winter.

Chef Bang again:

We preserve the flavor of summer. We pickle, dry, and ferment. We store the vegetables in dirt cellars and so on. It’s an old, natural way of preparing for winter.

There are faster and more efficient ways to get fresh vegetables in winter. But they—importing, industrialized farming—would dilute both the tastes and experience of Maaemo.

For me, this was the most powerful idea of the evening: Maaemo slows its prep to create a quality experience. Its momentum comes from a slower approach that values the process as much as the product.

What if all of us took a similarly long-term view of our business and marketing?

Maaemo builds its own larder and preps its own pantry.

Maaemo does the slow and boring work of preparing for the future.

Maaemo invests in craft and creativity. “The creative process is not something that we have rules for,” the chef says. An ingredient shows up in their kitchen as an idea might land in another creative person’s brain. “We talk about it. We taste it. We play around with it.”

Maaemo measures success via two metrics: the satisfaction of customers and (more unusually) the happiness of its staff. Its kitchen staff travels from all over the world to work in the Oslo kitchen, in both paid and unpaid capacities. Maaemo wants the people who work there to be excited to come to work. They want the work to inspire.

The bottom line is this:

Businesses that move too slow are road kill. Yet, does slow have a role to play in marketing? In business?

That’s a post for next time.


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38 Responses to What Marketing Can Learn from the Most Outstanding Meal I’ve Ever Had

  1. Sean Duffy says:

    Ann, love the post. Idea for your next book: Everybody Eats. Of course, this will require extensive field research. // Sean

  2. Steve Brown says:

    Ann,

    I love your post. It resonated well throughout, and provoked thought and feeling both of some of the things I feel I / we as a business are doing well and others that we could be doing better.

    Thanks for sharing (which I will be doing with your post) also sounds a fantastic experience, with Maaemo looking to be a business to admire.

    BR

    Steve

  3. Cathy McPhillips says:

    I love this, Ann! So many important takeaways. I was talking to my friend Robert Rose the other night about experiences (of course!) and working to inspire.

  4. Brian Blake says:

    Great post, Ann! I just shared it with my good friend, Ole, who is heading back to Norway for the summer. Sounds like a place he would enjoy.

    I loved your insights about slowing down at the right moments. So often, we get caught up with always moving forward, finding the next idea, pushing the boundaries… we forget to ease up and savor an experience with our customer. Good stuff.

    Looking forward to seeing you again soon, Ms. Handley. It’s been way too long!

    B2

  5. jay baer says:

    you had me at reindeer heart

  6. You tell good stories. I feel like I’m there with you, experiencing food I’d likely never try, and sharing wisdom on marketing that is priceless.

    My favorite is burger. When I started planning and meeting with friends at gourmet burger places, It was just another meal. Then my burger buddies and I talked about where the better burgers come from. We met a chef, we shared a story. We posted burger photos and others started asking where I thought they should go.

    I find myself thinking about a meeting I’ve got planned next week… The client has my attention, mindshare and ideas are percolating (admittedly, much of the conscience part is menu).

    Not too fancy, but the story makes me ready to buy.

    All marketing is storytelling. Many stories don’t do their brands justice but there’s always a story.

  7. Ardath Albee says:

    I want to go there…NOW 🙂 What a great parallel. And I love the idea of slow, of focus, of feeling it. Quite often, I think as marketers we’re too detached from the experiences we strive to create. And that makes a difference.

  8. Tom Bentley says:

    Ann, such bounty here. Branding is so much more than tweeting random specials. It’s much more about salted sheep fat specials.

    Thanks for the vivid plunge into setting and context, and what made that place special. And how it makes for the most get-under-the-skin kind of marketing. (Of course, the plebeian in me wants to know how much the meal cost, but if you have to ask…)

    • Ann Handley says:

      …you don’t really want to know.

      And thank you, Tom. I like the idea of “get-under-the-skin” marketing… and not in a creepy, futuristic, implanted kind of way.

  9. As always, I devoured every word like a gumball-sized thing called a liquid waffle served over mountain tea made from wild herbs found only in Bøverdalen. I can only imagine how delicious your experience was in person. Thank you for sharing a taste of your experience and a marketing lesson to boot.

    Sometimes I think it’s a blessing and a curse that marketing intersects almost everything! (Pretty sure my daughter and I have had similar exchanges either at the Post Office or the like) She thinks I’m crazy. I call it passionate.

  10. I do the same thing with creating a content strategy for everything! I can’t help it. Loved reading about your experience! Thank you for sharing!

  11. Stephen Q Shannon says:

    OFF TOPIC a little – Big fan for many reasons. Especially your engagement with our comments.
    Mine centers on seeking more eye-friendly size and intensity (contrast) of text against non-contrasting backgrounds. Sometimes I think there is cabal to make it challenging to absorb text to see if readers like me really give a damn about reading content online. Ann, consider surveying partisans about how they “manage” text size, grey text on teal, for example. Spiffy, but not eye-friendly in my “view”. Thanks for thinking about this. One of your advocates.

  12. Heidi Cohen says:

    Ann–

    After reading your post, I was ready to book a reservation to Oslo and Maaemo (even though I’ve been to Oslo more than once and it’s not on my travel bucket list.)

    I agree with you: Slow is a critical element of marketing.

    As marketers, we must look beyond the bright lights of marketing hacking to yield sustaining results and profitability.

    Happy marketing,
    Heidi Cohen
    Actionable Marketing Guide

  13. Full of ideas for my upcoming job for a construction firm after reading that. Their buildings take quite a while to put together so the idea of anticipation is something I’m sure I can work with.

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  16. Deepak says:

    A good article with a lot of insights. Great title too 🙂

  17. Jack Hadley says:

    Thank you. Thank you. So insightful, and a topic very close to my heart.

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  19. Doug Norton says:

    Great post, though wasn’t sure how you were going to get to the title from standing in line post office and Chewbacca Mom! But you are so right that as marketers our work intersects almost everything. And wow, what an amazing dining experience (and good to know if I get to Oslo)!

  20. Erica Muse says:

    Great post! Makes me really think about how brand story is a vital first step. Everything from the anticipation to the food to the preparation is true to their story and their brand. Not to mention their attention to detail in creating a first class experience sparked you to write this post, making everyone that reads it want to travel all the way to Oslo just to eat here! I know I do. Restaurants, products, brands, people, and places can all benefit from a story or persona they stay true to and identify with. Can’t wait to add this to my bucket list!

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  22. Kenzie H. says:

    I really enjoyed your comparisons in this article. I think we live in a world that moves too fast. We are entirely too focused on the end result and seem to look completely past the process. There is such an array of audience types now that it can be hard to get the attention of everyone but most of us do have something in common. That is we wouldn’t mind being apart of the process. This process could be watching our package slowly making it’s way to our doorstep or knowing the amount of prep and passion goes into our meals. It makes us feel more involved with the company and in the end we feel like we actually contributed as the consumer. It makes the end result a bit more rewarding and exciting to get to.
    I think my favorite point that you brought up is the constant request for tweets or reviews within the section, “Inspiring Sharing: Creating Value in Unexpected Moments”. I have been turned away many times from businesses that seem, like you said, to be forcing these actions. We all know that Word of Mouth is a less expensive and highly beneficial way of marketing a business but these statements such as “tweet this” are slowly making businesses seem desperate. You are absolutely correct about that.
    Thank you for this interesting read and overall comparison.

  23. Sara Hunt says:

    Super interesting thoughts! Love that you point out that for marketers “the Venn diagram of work and life is a perfect circle.” So much of life translates directly into marketing, and the way that this particular restaurant has built their brand can teach us a lot. Building a story around the brand is so crucial. Such thought provoking comparisons.

  24. Paulina Famiano says:

    I am about to graduate with a marketing degree in December and these thoughts provided me with valuable insight as I enter into the real world.

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