What Animation Can Learn from a Restaurant Owner

This business case study of Ferran Adrià‘s restaurant elBulli restaurant has nothing to do on the surface with cartoons, yet the conclusions of the study can be applied equally well to the animation industry.

In particular, this comment by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School stands out:

“Adrià‘s idea is that if you listen to customers, what they tell you they want will be based on something they already know. 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.”

One of the key points in Norton’s study is making a distinction between understanding and listening to customers; the former is what Adrià does. Apply this to the idea of focus grouping in animation, and you might see where I’m headed. Norton is saying that if Adrià focus-grouped his food to satisfy the preconceived notions of his customers, his restaurant would be no different from all the others. The reason his restaurant is sold out year-round is because he surprises the tastes and sensibilities of his customers with an unpredictable personal vision.

In an increasingly homogenized culture, audiences (whether in a restaurant or in front of TV) crave experiences that are different and new. The entire purpose of focus groups in animation, however, is to ensure that audiences are given more of the same previously-successful ideas. But, look at many of the most successful animated series of recent years–The Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy, Beavis & Butt-head, South Park, Family Guy–and what they have in common is that they broke the mold of everything that preceded them. Focus groups (which I should point out are different from test screenings that can actually aid filmmakers) are a hindrance to the development of successful animation; an unspoken reason for their existence is largely to relieve execs of accountability for their decisions: “Well, I don’t know why the show failed,” they can say. “The focus groups loved it.”


  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w24Rou50-Ls John L.

    Yes! I like this. Awesome post

  • Tim Hodge

    Charlie Chaplin had a great quote along these lines:

    “The public never knows what it wants, only what it doesn’t want.”

  • http://danielpoeira.org Daniel Poeira

    People didn’t want Picasso when he first came up, and now everybody loves him. Same goes to almost every great artist ever.

    If you get people what they want, all the time, they’ll soon get bored and move over. People want to be surprised, and not scared. Like a rollercoaster :)

  • http://mfearing.wordpress.com/ Mark Fearing

    Great Post! Very insightful. Of course when the studios have hundreds of millions on the line, and everyone involved is CYAing, the desire to point to what audiences ‘want’ will usually win out. Another company that does not use focus groups for product development in Apple Computer. The iPod wasn’t designed by a focus group. It was designed by the designers to do what they wanted.
    -Mark

  • http://www.freshlyground.net Kristen Miller

    Love the idea of thinking ‘outside’ the box, but it’s hard to get the people who write the checks to dole cash out for a risk. Look at how the studios gave Lucas such a hard time for Episode IV. To really break the mold, you have to be willing to compromise the coin.

  • http://www.inkandpixelclub.com Sara

    The trouble is that neither understanding your audience but not listening to their suggestions nor taking your audience’s word as gospel is a guaranteed path to success, or even a surefire way to avoid failure. For every elBulli, there are probably tens if not hundreds of restaurants that started off with similar ideals and failed. For one thing. it can be very tricky to determine what your audience will enjoy that isn’t something they’ve experienced before. We can throw out a bunch of stuff that we may think will always win an audience over: compelling characters, great story, exciting and unique visuals. But I think we all know that such elements aren’t always enough to get audience’s attention. For another, you can be doing amazing, innovative work that people would love and it won’t matter one bit if they don’t know about it or give it even a first glance, much less a second. I think part of what Chef Adrià has accomplished is to build both brand identity and recognition and a sense of trust from his patrons so that they go in believing that however strange or unfamiliar what he serves them might seem, it will be good and it will be an experience worth having. That’s not an easy thing to do in any medium and it takes a lot more than just putting your good product out there. Sometimes it may mean starting out with something that’s a little bit safer but still of quality to build up that rapport with the audience before bringing out the riskier material. And of course, animation is a very different world from cooking. Maybe you can make a film that will wow fans of the medium while being inaccessible or unknown to the mainstream public, but you can’t generally to ask a premium price for it or to make a decent living catering to just that crowd.

    Listen exclusively to the focus groups and you end up with derivative, “safe” ideas that may succeed or fail, but will likely look pretty similar to existing stuff and not stand the test of time. Go completely outside the box and just make something that you think is good and to hell with the public and you could end with a daring masterpiece that takes the world by storm, a daring work that it never understood in its own time and only appreciated for its genius years later, or a total flop that no one gets or likes. Part of what I like about this article is the implication that Chef Adrià may not listen to his customers directly, but he still understands them, and I think that’s the middle ground where the secret lies. But the average network or studio exec is still going to lean towards the focus group and the proven successes, because it’s a lot easier to sell the people they answer to on the idea that “this will make money because it’s like this other thing which made money and people say they like that kind of thing” than “this will make money because its new and unlike anything else out there and once people see it, they are going to love it.” Cursing the execs who make the former argument is like a waste of time and breath, so maybe we should be cheering on those few who choose to back the latter.

  • http://UncleEddiesTheoryCorner Eddie fitzgerald

    Wooow! A terrific quote! I’m going to put it on my bulletin board!

  • http://www.musicworthbuying.com TJR

    Great analogy. The same can be applied to music .

  • http://vincemusacchia.blogspot.com vince m

    What restaurants can learn from animation:
    Don’t keep serving the same meal over and over!

  • Spike

    I think this video, about how Google chooses new projects, is particularly relevant.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GtgSkmDnbQ

  • http://iggyk.blogspot.com Michael B

    Applies to a lot of things really. I remember when Nintendo was hyping the “Revolution” citing a change in how people play and every one was stoked to see what they had to show. When they finally unveiled the Wii and the remote specifically, blogs and gaming sites were abuzz on Nintendo’s lackluster remote control and possible failure.

    Well…Wii now has sold 559,315 consoles more than sony or MS. In an interview with, I think it was joystiq I remember Satoru Iwata saying something along the lines of: “The customer doesn’t know what it wants”.

    I also found this while trying to look for the exact quote (that I still can’t find), interesting read:

    http://davidbau.com/archives/2006/05/09/dont_listen_to_your_customers.html

  • Erik

    This scott campbell painting pretty much sums it up.

    When I was working at imagineering we would rely on focus groups for everything. (we had absolutely no artistic vision which was always a nightmare) Kids are just flat out crazy, they have no idea what they want. So the producers have no idea what they want+kids don’t know what they want = wonderful sparkling crap.

    true story, one kid ran up to me and with crazy eyes similar to the film life aquatic. He started begged me to put aliens in the project………..even though they had no business being there.

  • christy

    great post!

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    This is sort of connected to your post a few days ago about the future of feature animation and lower budgets. Right now, it’s apparently hard to get major studios to take a risk on unproven quantities. Pixar’s films are a “sure thing”, family films are a “sure thing”, wise-cracking, celebrity voiced animals in CG are a “sure thing”. A project like Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Andersen + Roald Dahl, two sure things) is a step in the right direction. With lower budgets, more directors should be able to take the risk and create animated films whose content and execution is still more unexpected.

    A change is gonna come! Hallelujah, I believe it!

  • Brianimator

    Yes, Family Guy certainly “broke the mold of everything that preceded it” by brilliantly satirizing suburban, middle-class, American life whilst featuring an overweight buffoonish but likable patriarch and his dysfunctional but loving family who… oh wait that’s The Simpsons.

  • http://www.jjsedelmaier.com J.J. Sedelmaier

    Regarding the Chaplin quote, “The public never knows what it wants, only what it doesn’t want.” Probably a better way of putting it would be: “The public never knows what it wants, only what it DIDN’T want.”

  • http://story-eater.blogspot.com James

    Something I posted on my blog:

    “Let me put it like this, before you is a plate with a delicious cake. You eat the cake, it is good. A man walks up to you, takes the plate but then immediately puts it back in front of you. You look up at him questioningly and ask what is he doing and he replies “I saw how much you enjoyed that cake so I decided to serve it to you again” you look back down to the plate yet there is nothing there, you have already eaten that cake. You look around the room and see people eating from the same plates again and again, but there is nothing on their plates and with horror you realise their starving to death.”

    Suffice it to say I agree completely with this, you can’t just keep feeding people the same thing over and over… it’ll rot their brains.

  • Brad

    The wonderful film “Big Night” – also about a restaurant, but actually about artists trying to survive – made this exact point many years ago -

  • captainmurphy

    This is exactly what killed radio. FM music radio.

    The stations either all got bought up or all subscribed to the same ivory tower consultant. The consultant said, well, these songs always bring good demographics and numbers for advertisers.

    And some of those stations have not changed their playlists SINCE. Going with the tried and true. For thirty years.

    What a lot of marketing survey FAILS to count, is the LOSS of customers. They do not count those that leave in droves for every small notch increase that a new product or annoying sales pitch might bring in.

  • http://invaderpetblog.blogspot.com Brandon

    What I want to know is do people take part in Focus Groups just to purposely try to sabatoge someone’s film? On Craigslist, there was a want ad for people who want to join a focus group, and the job description was “making criticsms, or requesting changes for film’s currently in production”.

  • Anonymous

    Hear hear, Brianimator.

    I object to ‘Family Guy’ being in the same sentence as the words “broke the mold,” let alone alongside the masterpieces that comprise the rest of your list.