There was once a seafood restaurant in Boston that had no name. It never marketed itself; the food did the talking. It lasted 102 years. Now it’s bankrupt and gone.
When I first came to Boston in 1979, I lived in graduate student housing in Cambridge, a four-bedroom apartment with three other guys. The day after I arrived, my new roommates said, “Let’s go to the No Name.” What the heck, I thought. We had bicycles.
I’d never lived in a city before, so this was an adventure. We rode four miles to a pier in the Boston Seaport. It was getting dark and I had serious misgivings about where they had taken me, which seemed to be the smelliest and creepiest part of the city. We went into a nondescript door, sat down at a picnic table with other random people, and ordered from a very limited menu of basic seafood.
The portions were big, the prices were student-friendly, and the fish was fresh. The service was speedy but brusque and the ambiance was, putting it kindly, rustic. And it didn’t bother to have a name.
The food was great. It was a good introduction to living in this wonderful but pushy town I’d found myself in. In what has to be considered some sort of omen, on the way back, in the dark, on streets I didn’t recognize, my bicycle malfunctioned, the rear wheel rubbing against the frame. I slowed down just as a barking dog started chasing me and watched my roommates and their bikes recede into the distance. Somehow I got past the dog, fixed the bike, and caught up to them; since this was way before GPS, that was the only way I could get home.
I went back to the No Name a few times after that. There was always a line. Word of mouth and that line were the only advertising. If you didn’t know where to find the No Name, you’d walk right by it. The food was always pretty good.
I remember going once with my first wife when we were dating. They seated us on stools at the counter. Unbelievably, the guy behind the counter was sneaking a smoke right there in the restaurant while bussing the dishes. I’ve certainly never seen that before.
Once I moved to the suburbs I didn’t go back. The No Name never advertised (or got a name) and it didn’t get any friendlier; we went to classier places. The No Name stayed exactly the same while the Seaport changed around it. Now the Seaport district, formerly a wasteland of fishing piers and parking lots, is the hottest part of Boston. It’s full of startup companies. Autodesk has moved there. The city bribed GE to make the Seaport the location for its new headquarters. There are lots of dining options on the Seaport and the people who hang out there have the money to spend on them.
The No Name never invested in anything but food. It announced it was closed on Facebook, but even its demise is disorganized — its website is still taking reservations (when did they introduce reservations?).
If you make a great product and stay true to your roots you can keep attracting customers. You don’t need ads, you don’t need reserved seating, you don’t even need a name. But things do change. Eventually, if you stay exactly the same, things will change around you and you will become obsolete. You might even be able to make the adjustment to that change, but if you do, you need to find a way to reach back out to customers and tell them.
Sure, a great product is its own marketing. But not forever. And certainly not if you’ve got no way to contact those customers and remind them who you are, or who you have become.