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11 January 2013

Give us this day our daily bread: The choices of Le Pain Quotidien

Once upon a time there was a local family business, called bakery Vanhelden. For more than 100 years, generation after generation, the business values were quality, tradition and authenticity. My father, the last baker’s generation, added an extra value: simplicity. Being brought up in the spirit of these values, I listened fascinated to the discours of Alain Coumont, founder of Le Pain Quotidien, at the STIMA congress 2012. A story about choices …


The choice for the customer.
Alain Coumont started off with a very concise offering: only 2 kinds of bread and 3 types of sweet patisserie. But he made a shift from a small offering towards an abundance of choice. I asked myself two questions. First of all, doesn’t the stress of choice, that comes along with the offer, conflict with the general business ambition to de-stress his clients? Secondly and most importantly, isn’t less more?


Alain Coumont confirmed that his goal is to resimplify his offering. This is a difficult exercise, because a lot of countries have their own eating habits he needs to take into account. My dad preached consciously the values of simplicity and relevance. Our bakery served only 4 kinds of round bread of one size (white, wheat, 7-grain, sour dough). He was convinced that offering more types of loaf wouldn’t have any added value for the customers. They wouldn’t taste the difference between a 7-grain or a 12-grain bread and he didn’t want to mislead his clients by adding something to have a more sound bread structure that didn’t have any additional nutritional value. 

Marketers need to focus more on their product offering. According to Dan Ariely, when we keep all doors open, the options distract us from our main objectives and obstruct the decision process. We need to shut some doors because they draw energy and commitment from the doors that should be left open. Focus not only makes the life easier of the consumer, but also the activities of the marketer.

The choice of not doing something. The choice for the consumer isn’t everything. There are also the choices an entrepreneur needs to make. Le Pain Quotidien follows an important lesson of Steve Jobs: deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. A good example is the fact that LPQ doesn’t serve Coca Cola anymore. This would not be in accordance with their organic products, more specifically their organic sugar. No Perrier in Mexico, but local water. Their idea of putting a mail box in their shops as a reaction against fast media like Facebook, gives their customers the chance to write a postcard to their friends. This is another example that reflects the importance that LPQ attaches to be aligned with their business values.

The most important choice my father made not to do something was, besides his limited selection of breads, not offering patisserie nor sandwiches. This choice was mainly made from a business perspective. With respect to the tradition, he wanted to continue working the authentic way and keep his bakery an exclusive family business without external employees. This also allowed him to maintain his own high quality standard. Next to this reason, opportunity costing was also a main driver. Again, as tradition prescribed, the Vanhelden bakers did home delivery. This activity was time consuming and had lower margins, but the turnover was higher because it involved the majority of the clients, gained after all those years. This explains why my father decided to abandon patisserie in order to use this time to continue home delivery.

Marketers should also apply the principle of opportunity costing to their campaigns. Instead of highlighting the advantages of a product in comparison with another, they should emphasize the implications if you don’t buy the product or make the lost opportunities (due to not buying the other product) less attractive. The service Zoomit is an example, because your transfer is prefilled and you don’t waste time with paper management. The Kadoosjes of the National Lottery or the Kinepolis campaign for movie tickets stress the risk you take when buying another present that might not match with the person’s interest.

The choices of life. The presentation at the STIMA congress became a story about the authenticity of street smartness or an explanation about how a hobby became a bread winning. In the beginning Alain Coumont didn’t make clear choices about the growth and the potential of his shop. He just followed his heart and made decisions on the spot when a problem occurred. In that way the brand building came spontaneously. Indeed, I saw clearly at home that being a baker is a hard way of living. You need to have a good dose of passion to persevere in this business. My father learned the business tricks on the job and decided to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors.

Intuition is an undervalued skill of the marketer. In these turbulent times marketers need to prove every activity with facts and figures. Tangibility is indeed very important. However, sometimes marketers need to follow their instinct and capitalize their common sense. Occasionally step back from all the logic and accept strong intuition as a reason to bring innovation to the customer. Make sure you have a list of projects of which some can be less profitable, just to try some innovative ideas. Because, as Henri Poincaré stated, it is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.

A less common choice.
It is hard to believe that Le Pain Quotidien doesn’t have a mission statement. Finding the right balance between food, people and environment in an authentic context to feed body and soul at the communal table is, according to me, a clear mission. Marketers not only need to have a vision, but also have to predict the upcoming trends. Alain Coumont did the right thing by choosing for sustainability and organic food. He is convinced of the importance of veganism in the future. What will be hot tomorrow is already hot today!

Being innovative is a conditio sine qua non for marketers. Think about the new business model of Marc Van Eeckhout. He closed his traditional bakeries to open his 24/7 self-service shops Broodnodig. The concept gives a better work-life balance to his employees and he responds to the needs of households who no longer feel the stress of buying their bread in time at the bakery.


Simplicity, alignment with business values, opportunity costing, intuition and innovation. These are the ingredients for a successful business. You need to mould them again and again to produce the essence of your company, your daily bread …


With a special thanks to my dad …