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Keeping the faith

For all of us January is a challenge. For businesses, it’s a time of opportunity:  recession or no recession. At no other time are companies so driven to improve, implement much-needed changes and start as they mean to go on.

In the month of dark mornings, dark evenings and crap weather, it’s this drive and sense of optimism that keeps businesses motivated. The trick however, is to maintain this drive beyond the first month of the year and keep the inspiration flowing.

In marketing terms, the good news is that inspiration doesn’t have to involve radical thinking or expensive campaigns that focus more on the gimmick than the message. While it’s always healthy to come up with fresh new ideas and think laterally, it’s worth remembering that ‘blue sky thinking’ won’t always pave the way forward.

Those who watched Channel 4’s Big Chef Takes on Little Chef last week will no doubt have joined me in shuddering each time Little Chef’s CEO Ian Pegler demanded more ‘blue sky thinking’ from Heston Blumenthal. An uninspiring management speak request, but more importantly, an ill conceived brief. Blumenthal’s subsequent delivery of blue sky thinking menus and food failed to impress Pegler, yet instead of reconsidering the brief, he continued to ask the Michelin star chef for more thoughts of the blue sky variety.

Back to the drawing board for Blumenthal.

The resulting menu piloted at the chain’s flagship eatery in Popham, inspired revered restaurant critic Fay Maschler to proclaim it ‘the restaurant opening of the year’ – after tasting the steak and ale pie. Blue sky thinking didn’t feature in the critics’ appraisal, what impressed those who attended the relaunch of the Little Chef menu was, unsurprisingly, the quality of the food, the improved service and décor (featuring a blue sky ceiling!) and the reassuringly traditional menu.

Bar a couple of newly-introduced dishes, the menu hadn’t changed massively in content from the original, still offering the traditional cooked breakfast and other roadside favourites. It had been simplified from the original version which contained too many dishes to allow the staff to be able to cook anything fresh, but the quality of ingredients used and a focus on what road travellers actually wanted to eat were key in the success of Blumenthal’s relaunch of Little Chef.

As sure as eggs is eggs, what the customer wants has to underpin everything. Understanding what motivates customers and how to attract more of the same will help any business through the challenging times ahead. The most inspiration will come from understanding the things that a business gets right and leveraging this experience into positive marketing. Concentrate on the basics first, get them right and whether your customers prefer porridge made from oats or snails will be easy to determine.