Sunday, December 12, 2010

Buick Regal Discovery Tour - Mashed Potatoes Pushed as Pommes Puree

I was so excited to have received an invite to the Food & Wine / Travel & Leisure sponsored Buick Regal Discovery Tour event last weekend for two reasons - the showcase featuring Chef Marcus Samuelsson, who became a household name for foodies when he won Top Chef Masters season 2; and the event location: the chic / irreverent SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, home to one of my favorite restaurants in LA - The Bazaar by Jose Andres.

With my brother, his wife and 'Foodie Mentor' in tow, our plan was to go through the afternoon session on Saturday, then conveniently pop off to The Bazaar for dinner - but was advised in advance that the restaurant would be closed for a private event that evening. 

Unfazed, we still cheerfully went in with no specific expectations, wanting to just go with the experience - we knew in general, with the sponsors involved, that the event would involve food, travel and Buick cars - and it was free which was great.  I had no idea that we would also be in for an interesting case study in Branding - the event could have really used a Stacy London and Clinton Kelly of Brand Marketing.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed and ushered up to the back patio for registration - where we were briefed on the flow of the day - we would be split into small groups and rotated through four different food/travel themed modules / presentations, followed by the grand finale with Chef Marcus Samuelsson.

It was during registration that we were first struck by the suspicion that the event could be a victim of its brand identity crisis and invite list (or lack thereof).  Buick was trying to position itself as a luxury brand - and chose a luxury setting accordingly - however, it seemed as though they had to bow to the reality of their consumer.  Despite the event being marketed as 'by invitation only' - the crowd they brought to their presumably carefully engineered event was uncouth, chaotic and mostly mismatched with the upscale venue.  The masses mobbed the hors d'oeuvres table (which had schizophrenic offerings reflecting its confused brand identity - a mix of fine dining shrimp cocktail in shot glasses, and pedestrian chips and salsa with house coffee), dropped trash anywhere they felt like (yes, we saw an actual half-eaten apple core on the carpet) and continued conversations loudly even when the host started his opening remarks on stage.

Though the caliber of attendees is not completely within an organizer's control - the event also was marred by Buick's struggles with the cardinal rules of Branding / Marketing from the start.  Great marketing starts with a great product, and as a corporation - especially given the amount they must have spent on the 10-city tour - they must be clear about the positioning of their product before messaging it to consumers.  Great as the event was in concept (more on that of course, in a sec!) - at the end of the day its purpose is to reinforce a marketing message to consumers, and it's highly unfortunate that the message we left with is that Buick is...confused.

Beginning with the pre-event survey, it was clear from the questions asked that Buick wanted to position themselves as a competitor to Lexus...or Acura.  Two vastly different brands - one in the luxury category, and the other more mid-range.  Most Lexus owners would never consider a Buick - Buick had challenging work ahead if they wanted to play in that category - and would have to be very creative about how they could overcome pre-existing perceptions of their brand as an economy brand.  And how they could justify Lexus level price tags for Buick quality cars.  If they wanted to place themselves on par with Acura - then they should have chosen another venue and structured the event differently - perhaps to emphasize authenticity or 'emerging affluence', targeting younger professionals.

Putting that confusion aside, as none in our party were there to shop for a car or discuss marketing strategy, we focused on the potential of a fun interactive afternoon of culinary / travel discoveries.  The modules we would rotate through were:  "Artisan" (cooking demo), "Mixology" (interactive 'class' on mixing a great 'mocktail'), "Travel" and of course, a Buick presentation and test drive session.  The grand finale would be a presentation to the entire group by Chef Marcus Samuelsson.

Our first module was "Artisan". This session was held in a small ballroom with the chefs from SLS Hotel - led by Executive Chef Jorge Chicas - in the front of the room, no riser, and seating arranged in even rows - so that anyone behind the first 3 rows could not see a single thing happening at the chef's table. While Jorge was articulate and engaging, the other chefs were hard to hear, and were not as great at talking through what they were doing so that people who could not see them could imagine what they were doing by listening to them.

This was unfortunate as the dishes they prepared were actually very interesting - an heirloom tomatoe and watermelon mini salad, and 'liquid olives' - an amazing molecular gastronomy show-stopper that was essentially a small sphere with an outer shell made of olive puree, and sealed in an invisible 'wrapper' made via calcium and alginate, that sent a pleasant burst of encased olive brine into the roof of your mouth.  These olives are usually placed into special martinis at The Bazaar, a drink we couldn't wait to go back to try.

The second module, Mixology, was more interactive.  Michael Green, wine & spirits consultant and owner of Liquid Assets Consulting Group, was engaging and we knew we were in for a good time when we saw the room set up with a glass, and single-portion liquids for mixing at each seat.  We were shown how to mix a Ginger Green Tea Sour 'mocktail' (non-alcoholic since they didn't want people drinking before test driving their cars) - we would get the alcoholic version later, at the final presentation.

The third module was 'Travel' with the fascinating Michael Stern of  Given the tone of the communications we had received and setting of the event, we had expected the Travel module to dazzle with stories / tips about exciting, exotic and international locales.  Instead, we got insights into local cuisines across America - a presentation that while definitely great with one of the most engaging and interesting presenters of the four, seemed more appropriate for a AAA event - versus an event designed to elevate a staid brand into the luxury category.

Here Buick's identity crisis strikes again - perhaps they were torn between their aspiration to be seen as a luxury brand, and reality - that their consumers are in general more in the authentic, hard-working salt-of-the-earth category.  Just to be clear, I think that the latter category is amazing - and consider myself a member of that group - the issue is purely with Buick's apparent struggles with deciding which category is their target, and how to be consistent with their message to that target to reinforce a certain idea about their brand, leading to a very schizophrenic event that really left guests with the perception Buick is peddling their product as something it is not - like pushing mashed potatoes as pommes puree - versus positioning themselves as helping guests discover the merits of their product in an authentic way. 

I do have to applaud Michael Stern of as an amazing presentator - and I will definitely check out his site when travelling within the U.S.  He was a fount of knowledge about signature dishes in cities across the nation, and shared many intriguing stories of dishes we had never heard of, from "Wiener Up the Arm" in Rhode Island to the "Italian Beef Sandwich" served "hot and sweet" in Chicago, and "Mett" in Cincinatti.  A great tip that he also left us with about how to discover local gems - is to ask a person who has moved away from the city, what the first place they would go to eat is, if they went back to visit the city - this simple question would reveal the food/place a person misses most that is unique to that city.

The fourth and final module is of course the Buick presentation and test drive.  This was well organized, with rows of Buick cars lined up down the street for people to hop in immediately after hearing the spiel, and a sales person to ride-along in each car to presumably speak to the cars features and answer questions (and ensure the safe return of their cars?).  It was a pleasant drive down the tree-lined streets of Beverly Hills - and though the test drive did not change our minds about the quality and status of Buick cars, nor our (lack of) intent to purchase, we did find that both the exterior and interior design of the Regal exceeded our expectations. 

The only note here - really on Buick's behalf, since we enjoyed the no-pressure presentation - is that with a captive audience in the car, if I were Buick I would have trained my ride-along-sales-guy a bit better to proactively give the pitch, highlight features and any competitive advantages of the car during the test drive, instead of just asking us if we had any questions.  Given consumers who in general are not interested in spending upwards of $30k for a Buick, the sales person would have to do the heavy lifting of trying to hit the gas pedal to fuel interest, versus hoping for guests - who mostly had their foot on the brakes when it came to the sales presentation - to make the effort to extract information from them.  Especially since Foodie Mentor drives a Lexus, and told our ride-along up front diplomatically that the Buick doesn't handle the same way.  Though, to be fair, our ride-along was nice and low-key, and perhaps there just simply wasn't a lot of competitive advantages to highlight against a Lexus.

After the test drive was the grand finale - which we thought would involve a cooking demo by Chef Marcus Samuelsson. The crowd was herded to the ballroom, where we were given a choice of a 'real' Ginger Green Tea Sour cocktail or the 'mocktail' version of the drink. As everyone was getting seated, Chef Marcus was seen up on stage stirring some Shrimp & Grits - with this one, the event organizers were kind enough to project the visuals onto a larger screen so that those in the back can also see what is happening.
However, it was interesting to see, once Chef Marcus started his presentation, about his career, upbringing, holiday foods, and use of fresh and local ingredients and flavors - that he really wasn't going to be doing an actual cooking demo.  The pan of shrimp and grits was more like a prop - to evoke the idea of cooking - Chef Marcus seemed only to be heating it up in the pan, stirring occasionally as he talked.  We did get to sample the dish though - servers streamed from the kitchen with bowls of shrimp and grits throughout the presentation, so that each person could try their own bowlful. 

The dish was amazing, with lime to break up the heat of the tomato-based chili sauce, cilantro, parsley and corn for texture and additional flavor, the shrimp pieces perfectly sized to allow for balanced spoonfuls of shrimp and grits - and the grits at perfect consistency and temperature.  I made a mental note to start saving for a trip to NYC to check out Chef Marcus' restaurant after that sampling!

The only thing that sort of marred this presentation can be attributed again to the guest list and event organizers.  The organizers decided to conduct a pop quiz after Chef Marcus' presentation, which is standard as a way to help attendee recall of the info presented, as well as a vehicle for giveaways - but with the bizarre prize of being able to grab an extra serving of shrimp and grits directly from Chef Marcus' pan on stage.  This took the tone of the event yet again from its intention to be refined, to really 'ghetto fabulous'.  Any other luxury brand might have offered gift certificates to Chef Marcus' restaurant, dare we think even a trip for two out to NYC, or a private VIP meet & greet after the event where you could perhaps have a tasting table of foods personally prepared by Chef Marcus.  Offering people the chance to run up to the stage to get a second helping of food was clearly not going to help guests make the connection of 'luxury' with Buick.  And the crowd itself exacerbated the problem - while many were fine and somewhat playfully raised their hands even before a question was asked - others were shamelessly aggressive in their attempts at the coveted prize.  Several women behind us asked one of the 'winners' to scrape some food from her bowl as she returned to her seat, and another (fairly well-dressed but unexpectedly ghetto) woman flagged down the host mid-sentence to say "I'm 8 months pregnant if that counts for anything" in order to secure her second bowl.

Earlier in the day during opening remarks, event organizers had already stated that 'normally at these types of events you would expect to leave with a goody bag', but that at this one they have decided not to give us one (albeit for a great cause, to put the money towards charity) so not to expect it.  So after the Chef Marcus presentation, there was sort of an awkward moment where it was like, ok - that's all folks - you can go now.  But then they stopped and said wait, we do have something for you - everyone will leave with a cookbook, "New American Table" by Chef Marcus Samuelsson.  This was a nice gift, a $40 hardcover, that was obviously prepared in advance - so we felt that instead of playing the crowd in such an unsophisticated way (lower their expectations, then come back with something in the end as a 'pleasant surprise') - it would have been more beneficial to their efforts to craft a 'luxury' image to state from the start, that everyone will leave with their own copy of the cookbook by the featured chef.

All in all, it was a free afternoon of entertainment surrounding my favorite topics, I enjoyed seeing and hearing from Chef Marcus Samuelsson, being able to taste a great dish from him, and will have fun going through some of the dishes in his cookbook.  I gained some insights into what not to do with Brand Marketing.  And we finished off with afternoon tea at Tres next door.  So, a fine ride overall. Thanks, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, and Buick!

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