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How To Create A Leading Brand With A Common Product

(This is also a story for people who love to sell quality and believe that nothing should be taken more seriously than the pleasure that comes from the best food.)

More than 110 years ago, a farmer who lived by the sea near La Rochelle in western France decided to quit raising cattle and began cultivating oysters. Henri Gillardeau could not read or write, but he could count, and he made enough money to build a large house opposite City Hall in the village that he called "Ça m’Suffit "(“That’s enough for me”).

Today the Gillardeau family is still cultivating oysters in a small town where nearly everyone is in the oyster business. While everyone has access to the same basic resources, Gillardeau oysters are world famous, while the others are not. Gillardeau has improved the process that involves 59 steps from hatching to harvesting – spread out over four years. Gillardeau only produces the highest-grade oysters, called spéciales. They are fleshier, tender yet almost crunchy, and they offer a delicate taste that some describe as “nutty sweet and salty, like sea air.” These top-of-the-line oysters sell for a higher price ($50 a dozen) in such fancy Parisian restaurants as Prunier, or such brasseries as Le Bofinger. For a complete list of restaurants that serve these oysters, click here.

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(“The taste of happiness – yesterday, today, always…the oyster, wisdom and memory.”)

For the past 15 years, sales have increased by an average of 20 percent each year. The company employs 100 workers, who produce 2,000 tons of oysters, which represents a market share of only 1.5 percent. While many cultivators have industrialized their production (and turned out a commodity with a somewhat bland taste), Gillardeau continually improved the customer experience (better quality, better taste, and better service) and the brand. What added to his sales success is complete control over the distribution channel. The company knows exactly where its oysters are sold through tight control over the wholesale channel. Today, Gillardeau is the leading oyster brand in France and as renowned as Hermès ties.

The oyster has become their world.

This sales success story caught my attention for several reasons.

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First, it’s a story about building an exclusive brand that demands a premium on the market. Second, it’s a story about how a family can increase the value of a business over five generations through a fierce commitment to continuous improvement. Third, the original founder’s motto, “That’s enough for me,” is an unusual philosophy that few people write or think about. The philosophy of more tends to drive people to accumulate more, work more, consume more, and stress more. The philosophy of enough allows people to keep their life and business within the boundaries of happiness. I think that the Gillardeau story contains a great lesson from an illiterate yet wise farmer who cultivated oysters and discovered within his oyster business a precious pearl of wisdom: Defining “enough” contains the secret to a more meaningful life.

For foodies who speak French: a Gillardeau recipe.

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Dale Berkebile

This is a great example of brand building over time. I like the idea of continual focus on improvements, but at the same time the original founder's moto, "That's enough for me". So often we get caught up in buying and consuming and don't take time to smell the roses. Over the last few years I have quit using credit and have turned my company into a 100% cash based business. The funny thing is although this was tough and has made us hit the brakes on spending, he have never been happier. Sometimes it is nice to not get instant gratification!

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