I am reading a great book, Authenticity by Gilmore and Pine, that made me go back to what used to be a favorite restaurant yesterday for lunch. I used to eat at Carrburritos in Carrboro, NC about once a week, but then they changed one item on the menu and I have all but stopped going.
Carrburritos rates high on the authenticity scale. The food is homegrown Mexican with the best Salsa bar you will find anywhere. The restaurant is hard to get to tucked into a side of a building and doesn't seat more than about 20, but both of those things add to the charm. They used to serve Coke in bottles imported from Mexico.
Now anyone who loves Coke as much as I do knows that bottled Coke is different and better than any alternative. Bottled Coke burns the back of your throat a little when you drink it and you can feel your eyes watering just a bit. Bottled Coke from Mexico was the perfect compliment to Carrburritos hulking burritos and homemade chips. The owner told me that he couldn't easily get the Mexican Coke any longer, so now they have, like everyone else, coke in lukewarm cans.
Since this change I've been back to Carrburritos one time, yesterday, and the experience just isn't the same. The one small ingredient changed the entire feel for me. Food was the same, salsa bar still creative and deep in choices, but the warm cans of Coke fell so far short of what was there before that it was a sad reminder of something that made Carrburritos special and worth the extra effort to eat there and was now missing.
The lesson here is that we do not control our experiences or our brands. Our customers and their reactions, interpretations and judgments control our destiny. When we change a tiny thing here or there we may unknowingly change everything. There is such a delicate balance between success in an over crowded marketplace and dismal rotting failure that it is good to know what makes us special and enhance it. In this case, Coke in bottles is one of the things that made Carrburritos special. Eliminate that and you are less special, less distinct. Doing something so seemingly innocent at a time when there are several large chain competitors is suicide. I hope I am wrong since Carrburritos makes the world more interesting than yet another "Welcome to Moes", but not understanding that Coke in bottles is part of their difference makes me worry for their future.
If you have an example of how a tiny thing changed a brand or an experience for you for good or ill, please share it.