18 Nov 2009  HBS Cases

Customer Feedback Not on elBulli’s Menu

The world is beating a path to Chef Ferran AdriÓ's door at elBulli, but why? In professor Michael Norton's course, students learn about marketing from a business owner who says he doesn't care whether or not customers like his product. Key concepts include:

  • The case highlights the distinction between understanding and listening to customers.
  • Fixing inefficiencies at elBulli turns it into just another restaurant.

 

He's been called "the Salvador DalÝ of the kitchen" for creations ranging from beetroot and yogurt ice-cream lollipops to a deconstructed Spanish omelet served in a parfait glass. Each year, some 2 million hopeful diners vie to be one of the fifty customers he serves each evening for the six months that elBulli, his restaurant, is open. The world is beating a path to Chef Ferran AdriÓ's door, but why?

"Creativity comes first; then comes the customer," he has said. So what can HBS students learn about marketing from a business owner who says he doesn't care whether or not customers like his product?

HBS assistant professor Michael Norton's interest in what motivates seemingly irrational consumer behavior has found a perfect subject in AdriÓ. To eat at elBulli, customers must navigate a mysterious reservations system. If they are lucky enough to be one of the 8,000 who get a booking that year, they are then given a date and time to show up. Reaching elBulli's coastal perch involves traveling to Barcelona, then negotiating two hours of narrow, twisting mountain roads. But then they enjoy a five-hour meal of thirty-some completely original, whimsical dishes prepared by AdriÓ and his team of thirty to forty cooks. The meal costs roughly 230 euros and represents hours of laborious research, testing, and preparation. In addition to engaging a diner's five senses, AdriÓ and his team hope to evoke irony, humor, and even childhood memories with their creations. "We have turned eating into an experience that supersedes eating," he has said.

"If the product is merely food, AdriÓ should move the restaurant to Barcelona or Madrid," says Norton, who has written a case on elBulli with Julißn Villanueva and Luc Wathieu. "Another view is that the product is the whole experience, from start to finish—so driving for two hours in the mountains is a crucial aspect of the product."

The case also highlights the distinction between understanding and listening to customers. "AdriÓ'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."

Norton asks students to consider the operations and marketing of elBulli. There is much about the restaurant that is inefficient, as MBAs are quick to note: AdriÓ should lower his staff numbers, use cheaper ingredients, improve his supply chain, and increase the restaurant's hours of operation. But "fixing" elBulli turns it into just another restaurant, says Norton: "The things that make it inefficient are part of what makes it so valuable to people."

AdriÓ's other business ventures include publishing elBulli-related catalogs, consulting to large food manufacturers, and the launch of an elBulli hotel and a chain of reasonably priced restaurants called Fast Good. But what is the balance between leveraging the AdriÓ/elBulli brand and breaking its core meaning? In a classroom discussion of first-year Marketing students, Norton says opinion was divided. Some felt sure that AdriÓ should be doing more to cash in on his name; others said he would destroy what he has worked so hard to build.

In December, students had the opportunity to hear from the man himself when AdriÓ visited Norton's Marketing class, where his comments made it clear that for this particular business owner, creativity and innovation trump any traditional decisions about pricing and operations.

"I should charge 600 euros [for a meal at elBulli]," AdriÓ has said, "but I do not cook for millionaires. I cook for sensitive people."

Because AdriÓ doesn't adhere to business norms, the elBulli case shows just how broad the spectrum for marketing a "product" can be—and that's not a bad thing for MBAs to learn. "Marketing is a science, but it's also an art," Norton remarks.

"AdriÓ says he doesn't listen to customers, yet his customers are some of the most satisfied in the world. That's an interesting riddle to consider."

About the author

Julia Hanna is associate editor of HBS Alumni Bulletin.