Towards the end of last year I attended a marketing workshop in a cafe on Bristol’s Whiteladies Road. Afterwards four of us had lunch. The experience epitomises much of what’s wrong with marketing these days – empty promises that create nothing but disappointment.

I won’t name the place, but let’s just say it’s near to the BBC and was full of achingly cool media types, yummie mummies with designer babies in slings and assorted students. Stripped wooden floors, lots of grey paintwork, formica topped tables, specials on a chalkboard and a couple of big ovens in view of the dining area – trés artisan, the epitome of contemporary café chic.

Honest to goodness

Visiting the cafe’s website later I see the home page has the obligatory mission statement: “We are all passionate about baking and roasting great food in line of site of our customers with no trickery, sleight of hand or witchcraft; just great people, great ingredients and a great location.” Nb, their italics and their spelling mistake – should be line of sight, but their copywriter was more interested in mimicking the Innocent tone of voice than bothering with anything as mundane as spelling!

Mouth-watering words

I ordered a Sourdough Sandwich, one of the day’s specials. The description was super inviting, something along the lines “roasted chicken tossed in lemon juice and light mayonnaise with slices of mature cheddar cheese and a garnish of rocket salad in a balsamic vinaigrette”.  When it came, it looked lovely, the plate sitting on a wooden bread board – all very pretty.

Unfilling filling

However, it was small. The breadboard, and the scattering of rocket, made it look bigger than it really was. This sourdough loaf was about four inches wide, at most, and my sandwich was shorter than it was wide. Seeing as they bake their own bread, on site/in sight, I thought they might have given me more of it!

Sourdough bread is mainly crust and you need the incisors of a Piranha to tear it with your teeth. I therefore dismantled it and cut it up into smaller pieces with the knife and fork provided.  This enabled me to see that there was virtually no filling. The chicken was not in slices, but tiny granules. These had been mixed into the mayonnaise to produce a very unappetising looking granular goo. The website paints an inviting picture of great ingredients, freshly prepared, before you very eyes in our own kitchen – but this stuff looked like it had been mass produced by an industrial-sized contract catering company. The portion control monitor had also made sure that no more than a light smear had been applied to the bread. Only by looking closely could I find the cheese, two little shavings that would not have sustained a mouse for more than a few hours.

You can’t eat atmosphere

My sandwich was priced at just over £5. I wasn’t paying so I didn’t feel personally short changed. But I did still feel hungry. And this got me thinking. Marketing has always been about exaggeration, hype and showmanship. But I feel this has now got out of hand.

Today’s eateries no longer let the food speak for itself. Menus take poetic licence to ridiculous lengths. Then there’s the heart on the sleeve protestations about passion, with all the stories about provenance. As well as the theatre of seeing your food being prepared (nb, all the talk about ovens being on show, and everything being prepared in full view, sounded great. But the truth was that ovens were not in use and none of the promised bakers, cooks or coffee grinders were anywhere to be seen).

So, a huge amount of marketing effort goes into whipping up expectations and into creating an experience. This, in the industry parlance, is the process of “adding value to the product”. It’s what marketing does. There’s nothing wrong with that – provided the product itself delivers. What is the point of food? It is to satisfy hunger. Sure, it has a social and cultural role to play as well. But if it doesn’t satisfy your appetite it is not fit for purpose – and no amount of other feel-good factors is going to compensate for that. Marketing should enhance the product, not act as a substitute for it!

As I left I saw a blackboard the cafe had propped up on the pavement to attract passers-by. The hand lettered message read: “Han-gry. (han-gree) adj. A state of anger caused by a lack of food. “don’t get hangry come to Xxxxx”. Very twee, and very apt.

Over-promise but under-deliver

If this was an isolated instance I wouldn’t be bothering to make an issue of it. But I think it’s symptomatic of much that’s wrong with marketing these days. Whether it’s food and drink or fitness and leisure, financial services or fashion retailing, automotive branding or technology products, there’s too much styling, toning, hyping and posturing, but not enough substance. So much effort goes into all the ephemeral stuff that the product itself becomes almost an irrelevance!