I have a strange fondness for motorway service stations. This is partly because, ever since I could drive, they have been one of the constants of my adult life. Constantly bad, admittedly. But constant all the same.
Despite their many flaws – e.g. the extortionate price you are obliged to pay for petrol or a pack of Wrigley’s, not to mention the preternaturally vile stench of the loos (belying the proudly displayed timetable of hourly cleaning inspections) – despite all these failings, they do largely deliver on their promise. Indeed in certain ways they over deliver.
And nowhere do they over deliver more than in the confectionary aisle. Not the confectionary aisle you’ll find in the restaurant mall or retail atrium. For the serious motorists these tend to be a little infantile, as if sweets were intended for children. No, I generally head straight to the pumps, the business end of proceedings where the Wild Bean and Ginster jostle with the anti-freeze, cheap CDs and Frazzles. But, as I say, all these delights fade in comparison to the confectionary aisle, where it is not just the extent of choice that impresses, but the nature of the choice too.
A buying team of unique skill and infinite judgment must devote most of their waking hours to the curation of such a magnificent assortment. The selection of brands is kaleidoscopic: where else will you find Lindt and Ferrero enjambed between Werther’s and Smith Kendon, just around the corner from Haribo and only a the roll of a Skittle away from Maynard’s? Every format seems to be on offer, every flavour variant and texture, every mixture from tangy to chewy, crunchy to soft, munchy to boiled. If confectionary had a Valhalla, it would surely be found at the Wild Bean Cafe, Trowell Services, M1 Junction 25.
But even by its own high standards, Trowell far exceeded my expectations when I was last there about a week ago. In fact my visit amounted to something of a fruit pastille epiphany. I love Rowntree's fruit pastilles – particular the big, chunky ones that come in a bag. However, I rarely buy them because the truth is that I only love the red and purple ones. I actually rather dislike the yellow and green ones (whilst being broadly neutral on orange). As I pondered my customary dilemma, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought I must be hallucinating; it was as if a bag of sweets had read my mind. But I was not imagining things. There in front of me hung a bag of Rowntree's fruit pastilles devoted exclusively to blackcurrant and strawberry flavours. Nirvana comes in many forms, but this is about as close as a bag of sweets can get. Congratulations to the genius young brand manager at Rowntree’s and the far-sightedness of the Wild Bean buying team.
The phrase "surprise and delight" is bandied about liberally in marketing circles. And rightly so – we all love delightful surprises like the one served up to me at Trowell Service Station. But the point of my somewhat rambling example is to highlight how rare these brand moments can be. We all set out to go the extra mile for our customer, but we can all be guilty of lapsing some way short.
In the cut and thrust of the day job, we lose sight of our ideals, and satisfy ourselves with just getting the job done.
In terms of my day-to-day experience, I would say I was lucky if I get one exceptional Rowntree-esque brand moment a week – which is a poor return for the dozens of transactions I make each day. More normally things are perfunctory, or they go wrong, or perhaps more annoyingly, just aren’t entirely right. For instance, no matter how hard I try, I can’t pay my Dartford Tunnel charge and am now in a lengthy correspondence with Dart Charge. The last time I checked into a hotel (having booked weeks in advance) I was greeted almost as if I was an extraterrestrial, the two idle receptionists seemingly not having grasped that I might like to get to my room in under half an hour.
We all know that the secret to success is to under promise and over deliver, and that the route to oblivion is to transpose the two. This is why they say that nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. By the same token, and before I start sounding like a parochial adman, when an ad agency gets a good product to work on, the least that client deserves is great advertising. Which I hope is what the young genius at Rowntree’s will be getting for his or her magnificent new confection.
Charles Vallance is the chairman and founding partner of VCCP.