What pop culture reveals about our desire for cream-of-the-crop CX

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”
—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

Customer Experience (CX) encompasses the entire cycle of a buyer’s journey that includes anticipation, discovery, and the fulfillment of desire. Technology and digital platforms have opened up new avenues for us to connect with commodities that fulfill our desires, and food certainly is one of them.

Food is the perfect turf for bottomless possibilities. Imagine a world where only one single type of cuisine existed! Without the promise of variety, three-meals-a-day would have been an incredibly boring affair. Stirring the pot with different cuisines—Indian, Thai, Chinese, Tex-Mex, Italian, Korean, Continental, among others—for a wholesome experience can offer further food for thought if we take into account that each cuisine is also a fusion of diverse cultures, their individual tastes, and influences. For example, the potato—which is now a staple in most North Indian dishes—was unknown to Indians until the 16th Century when the Portuguese brought it with their ships.

Our choice in food often reveals our desire for a taste of the ‘glocal’—a curious commingling of the local and global elements. It goes without saying that while we want our food to offer familiar comfort, we also want to explore uncharted territories of taste. Sometimes food delights us with its sweetness; and sometimes it pushes our familiar boundaries, where the irritable feel of, say, the spicy ghost pepper (bhut jolokia, the hottest pepper in the world) becomes a source of fun. Our minds can take a spin on the crowded streets on Myeong-dong while we feast on the flavorful Bibimbap rice with a side of delicious Korean fried chicken and kimchi with food delivery apps—virtually anywhere.

It is probably this aspect of food that led the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer to say, “Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.” We could not agree more. Food, for us, is more than just nourishment. As humans, we seek pleasure and avoid distasteful experiences. A good experience with food triggers reward centers of the brain, driving away pangs of hunger, as we feast with our eyes—and mobile screens in this digital age—savoring the moment. Just like other forms of consumptive culture, consuming food—or eating—manifests as a multisensory engagement, one that distinguishes one meal from the next in its welcoming variety. Our food choices often date back to the blissful moments of childhood when life was less complicated, full of beans. Etched in myriad youthful emotions and social interactions, food becomes a part of our individual and cultural identity.

In a nutshell, food makes us who we are.

Pop culture is food culture

Pop culture is replete with references to eating. It is the sous chef of quirky mannerisms that make characters so unique and likeable. “What is life without whimsy?” Sheldon Cooper, the nerdy theoretical physicist asks in Big Bang Theory, guzzling bite-sized hotdogs with Italian noodles.

Food culture, or a culture around food, has infused blockbuster movies and TV shows. Central Perk—the corner-side café in the TV show Friends—draws audiences over and over to the series. As communities bond over the experience of sharing food, laughter and beverages, friendships bloom and memories are made.

In the animated comedy television series SpongeBob SquarePants set underground in Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob’s love for ‘Krabby Patty’ burgers at Krusty Krab—a restaurant deemed “the finest eating establishment ever established for eating” and owned by the infamous Eugene H. Krabs—spurs him into action as he tries to protect the secret ingredient from Plankton, Mr. Krabs’s nemesis.

Following the popularity of these shows, Central Perk and Krusty Krab both have inspired real-life establishments for people with a love for themed food environments.

A snack for success

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
– Hippocrates

Food brings out the best in us—whether it is the magic potion made by the village druid Getafix in The Adventures of Asterix that invigorates the group of Gaulish warriors or a can of spinach that revitalizes Popeye the sailor man to defeat the burly Bluto and save his damsel-in-distress. The success of the enterprise, a common trope in popular culture, depends on the stack of snacks that helps them overcome obstacles and become stronger, better versions of themselves.

The growth of protagonists in pop culture depends on knowing themselves and those around them. And food often makes this knowledge possible. In the Kung Fu Panda movies, a stork prepares food for his son, a panda, in a village with all kinds of animals. The panda’s main motivator for training to be a Kung Fu fighter is food—steamed dumplings, almond cookies—and Master Shifu leverages this to make him perform perfect splits in anticipation of his favorite food. His love for food enables him to embark on a personal journey to self-realization.

Beware of ‘badvocates’

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”
 – Abraham Lincoln

When food plays such a foundational part in pop culture, why is it that we have so many instances of bad customer experience with food on TV? One could argue that in the context of the premise, it is funny to watch the sprightly Penny in Big Bang Theory tricking the eccentric Sheldon by mixing alcohol in his drink of choice—a virgin Cuba Libre (“rum and coke without the rum”)—during her stint as a bartender in the Cheesecake Factory. The crowd hoots as Sheldon, in a drunken haze, starts performing with a live instrument. In another episode, Penny banishes Sheldon from the same Cheesecake Factory where she works as a waitress. The fun runs dry when Sheldon, in a fit of rage, speaks with her manager to get himself reinstated.

Sheldon, like the ‘Soup Nazi’ in Seinfeld, turns into a ‘badvocate’ after a bad customer experience at the Cheesecake Factory owing to Penny’s subpar hospitality. ‘Badvocates’, according to Callum Negus Fancey, are “passionate consumers who employ social forums to criticize or detract from companies, brands, or products that they have either had a bad experience of, or whose behavior they disapprove of.”

Badvocates give brands a bad name. Another such ‘badvocate’ is Luke Danes, the balding and brooding diner owner in the 90s show Gilmore Girls. He is, more often than not, rude to his customers, screaming at them and kicking them out of the diner when he is in a bad mood. In the revival, Luke is still seen throwing out customers on a whim and refusing to share his Wi-Fi password, leaving customers enraged and craving a better dining experience in the quaint little town of Stars Hollow.

While it is hilarious—also nostalgic—to watch Rachael from Friends mess up orders at the Central Perk café where she works as a waitress, her lackluster attempt at hospitality makes for a bad customer experience. According to Fancey’s article on the Huffington Post site, on average badvocates tell 14 other people about the negative experiences they have had, crushing customer advocacy programs, and hurting brands and their sales figures.

Great food, greater CX

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Food can at once be routine and life changing. What connects great food to greater CX is the promise of being versatile. Restaurants and food delivery apps are no longer only about food. The ability to deliver constantly engaging, memorable experiences that drive a connection to the brand at every touchpoint is critical. According to a Deloitte article, serving up a great restaurant experience involves the ability to perceive what the customer wants. The customer wants to be engaged in a friendly, authentic way. They want to be empowered with the option of personalization. They must be heard and delighted by crafting a dining or a takeaway experience that exceeds expectations. It goes to say that technology can be the differentiator, bringing in the big cheese with automation and chatbots in customer support in the F&B industry.

While health, hygiene and quality standards must be maintained for a good experience of food, there is—at the same time—space for much experimentation that can yield unexpected but delightful results. The customer experience around food must complement this element of surprise with shorter wait times, great service, menus curated with fresher and healthier choices, convenient takeaway options, and an overall friendly environment that will bring customers back, turning “badvocates” into good advocates of the brand. Customers today demand cream-of-the-crop experiences; just serving good food does not cut the mustard anymore.

Cover image: Vignesh Rajan