Lessons in Creativity from hawker food vendors

A few years ago, a friend introduced me to the dish “Power Mee Rebus”. For those who are unfamiliar, “Mee Rebus” is a dish of yellow noodles in thick gravy with bean sprouts and a hard-boiled egg. One can imagine that a plate of Mee Rebus can hardly be satisfying in the protein department.  Along came a hawker who happens to be selling Mee Soto (noodles with chicken) and Satay (skewered BBQ meat) along with Mee Rebus. At some point, either the hawker or some hungry customer decided to order “the works”… ie., a plate of Mee Rebus with chicken and satay sauce (peanut sauce) and “Power Mee Rebus” was created.

Power Mee Rebus – See review by ieatishootipost.sg

Today, I ate “Mee Soto Anika” for the first time (don’t judge me, I know many who have not either). Someone decided that he/she prefers beef to chicken and hence created “Mee Soto Daging”, or Mee Soto with beef(meat) instead of chicken. Along came “Anika” (bless her big appetite, whoever she is), who decided to serve “the works”… ie., a bowl of Mee Soto with both chicken and beef!

Mee Soto Anika - HJ Waliti HJ Mazuki, Haig Road food centre

What do these two dishes teach us about creativity?

Firstly, creativity is important for product differentiation. Everyone sells Mee Rebus or Mee Soto with pretty much the same recipe. In a food centre, there can be multiple stalls selling the same food. Having a different product provides the cutting edge to stand out from the crowd.

Secondly, while true creativity may entails the creation of a totally new “breakthrough” product, the market will typically take a long time before trying and eventually accepting it. A product extension approach provides familiar references to appeal to the customers’ memories, yet providing the excitement of  something new. Hence, quick-to-launch product extensions can be an effective mid term strategy and can even be the stepping stone to the longer term breakthrough product strategy.

When we dive deep into content ideas, we can find that there are really very few “breakthrough” ideas. Most ideas are either old ones used in a new setting/context or a mixture of various ideas. Having a huge reservoir of ideas from which to draw inspiration is definitely an asset (eg., this experience with Power Mee Rebus and Mee Soto Anika…). However, we should never simply recycle ideas. The surprise element is still the most important.

Using known references provide an opportunity to “set up” the audience through their past experiences and make surprises more impactful.

If we merely recycle the idea (eg., remakes of old movies), it will never win the original and will draw comparisons that are detrimental to your objectives. Lots of singing talent shows sprouted after the success of “American Idol”. Only “The Voice” succeeded in breaking into the market because the differentiation (of getting celebrities vie for contestants) was refreshing.

So revisit your product/service offerings. Are there extensions that can be created for the short to medium term?