The Olive Garden restaurant chain
was started by General Mills in a determined effort to focus-group
its way to success. It set up shop at the greatest crossroads of
America, Orlando, and sluiced dozens of variations of spaghetti
sauce down the gullets of visitors until it discovered the recipe
deemed most-preferred by a cross-section of our nations tourists.
Armed with the
perfect sauce, it established Olive Gardens across the country, but
along the way, something unexpected happened: Once visitors were no
longer in Orlando, some preferred the sauces served by their local
mom-and-pop Italian restaurants. Focus groups were gathered in
haste, and corporate officials determined that some regions of the
country reported the sauces were too bland, others, too
In the end, General
Mills was true to its credo: Follow consumer preferences. They
spiced up the sauce in regions where it was perceived as bland and
lumped it up where it was thought to be too smooth.
The greatest successes in business tend to be
reached along one of two opposing paths. General Mills followed the
well-beaten path of tracking existing preferences and building a
product around them. The alternative path, innovation, leads people
in new directions that are unproven but potentially very
I thought about all
this two weeks ago when sailing aboard the MSC Opera on an eastern
Caribbean itinerary. The line makes much of its Italian heritage.
Sophia Loren is godmother of two of its ships, and shes about to
become the centerpiece in a consumer marketing campaign. MSC
describes itself as premium class, with a true Italian
connection struck me as innovative positioning. While the Caribbean
shows significant European influence -- the remnants of British,
Dutch, Spanish, French and even Danish colonization can be found in
varying degrees on the islands -- the idea of a floating Little
Italy in the Antilles really appealed to me.
In the final
analysis, the MSC experience shows that even innovators are
susceptible to the Olive Garden syndrome.
I interviewed the
head chef on the Opera and discovered that Americans, alas, want
their Italian experience dumbed down a bit when theyre afloat in
The Italians like
pasta al dente, but Americans, they like it softer, the chef
And the pizza,
added a staffer from the pursers office who was listening in. In
Naples, I really like it. Its -- he searched for the right word --
rough. But Americans didnt like it. So now we make it like the
MSC Cruises USA
President Rick Sasso later acknowledged to me that compromises are
made between keeping things authentic and keeping passengers happy,
but he also said that 100% authenticity is almost beside the point
when it comes to marketing.
In reality, its an
Italian halo, not an Italian experience, he said. As we say, its an
Italian signature. Its Sophia Loren. My goal is that people will
walk into a travel agency and say, I want to go on that Sophia
Loren cruise line.
I know that in the
world of business, creativity and innovation are not morally
superior to focus group-based product development. It doesnt matter
to shareholders whether you follow rather than lead the public.
Either can produce a healthy bottom line.
But in my heart of
hearts, Im rooting for innovation. Im rooting for authenticity. I
want Americans to embrace pasta thats firm and pizza thats rough
and square and perhaps even served at room temperature.
Still, I have to
acknowledge that from a marketing perspective, Sasso has his
priorities straight. He knows that, given a choice, I (like most
Americans) am going to choose to sit at the table where Sophia
Loren sits rather than one with a plate of pasta -- even if its
perfectly al dente, with a sauce neither too bland nor too