To me, cupcakes are like “the banana of sweets”… perfectly packaged and full of goodness!  Ok maybe not as “transportable” but you get the gist.  It’s all about moist, delectable cake… straight up for purists or infused with gooey filling for adventurers.  Seemingly endless, mouth-watering, flavour combinations.  (Don’t get me started.)

** Note:  Original Post March 8, 2010 – read on for interesting Update at bottom of post **

But there’s an art to a cupcake… an art that’s not represented in the bulk, plastic packs of sprinkle-suffocated cupcakes you often see in super-markets.  So suffice it to say there was no one more delighted than me to see the original Cupcakes franchise explode onto the scene.

From website to in-store, Cupcakes delivers Disney-like appeal.  They’ve done a brilliant job of creating branding continuity and a princess-like feel as soon as you walk in the door.  Honestly, you want to eat the walls.

However, after (several) visits to three separate locations I’m sad to report I’ve had luke-warm customer service experiences.  Each and every time I’ve asked a question about a particular cupcake, eyes glazed over like donuts.  You see the dichotomy.

Enter Big City Cupcakes.  I was on a busy Vancouver street and spotted the logo on their signage…first thought was CUUUPPPCAAAKE… 2nd was ‘that branding needs a colour platform.’  First though prevailed.  I jay-walked, entered and asked a simple (albeit direct) question… with a smile, “What makes your cupcakes better?”  Her answer surprised me.  She said, “Big City Cupcakes was founded by 3 business women with an old family recipe and a vision.  All of our cupcakes are handmade with fresh milk, eggs and butter and the finest ingredients including Callebaut Chocolate.”

I bought a ½ dozen.

And as she walked me through selections like Truffle and Strawberry Cheesecake, I noticed nothing but the spectacular display cases showcasing these little treasures.  The rest of the shop was stylish but ‘in the background’…by design.  What shone through was a brand story and it was beyond engaging.

So off I went with my gold ribbon package and product card detailing their locations and website, which… needs help.  However, Big City Cupcakes stayed with me… and the experience has been consistent in two other stores.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road… or the cupcake meets the lips. 

On the taste scale… the new-kid-on-the-block Big City Cupcakes is off-the-charts better tasting (confirmed in a blind taste-test with foodie friends).  And I shouldn’t be surprised.  I took some original Cupcakes to a barbeque with lots of kids and there were left-overs.  When I bought Big City Cupcakes the first time, I dug into one on the way home and had to pull over.

HERE’S THE (STANDING O) STICKING POINT:

I could digress into the nuances of creamy vs. crunchy icing, moist vs. dry, etc… but the real take-away here is how two cupcake franchises growing at the same relative rate, deliver a simple product in two very different ways.  One sets a brilliant front-end stage and falls short on back-end service and product while the other needs front-end ‘packaging’ yet tells a story, engages the customer and delivers a better tasting product.

Which delivers a better “brand experience”? 

By definition, all of the above.  But ultimately, it’s the product that raises the bar on taste, service, appeal, delivery… it’s the product that leaves you wanting more.

And isn’t it something when the under-dog actually RESETS the bar?

**UPDATE** Well, it appears the burgeoning Big City Cupcakes isn’t so big anymore. The people behind the franchise got themselves in a little legal trouble that caught up to them in Sept, 2011 (yikes). No Big City Cupcakes outlets are known to be operating, and while I’m not sure just how “original” the recipe actually was, it sure was delicious while it lasted! Meantime, the Cupcake Girls ended up landing a show that’s still airing on OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network). I still think there’s an opportunity for a “better cupcake”…