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 smooth.

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 attractive.

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 signature.

The 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 Caribbean.

The Italians like pasta al dente, but Americans, they like it softer, the chef said.

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 Americans like.

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 smooth.


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