Gingerbread man – too much of a good thing

Marrakesh. Jemaa El Fna. 11.30am.

I was travelling with my daughters, aged 15 and 13. I have travelled to a number of Arab and Islamic countries and am somewhat accustomed to the sights and sounds of the souk. But even I was blown away by assault on the sense of this place. As for my daughters, they were slack-jawed and saucer-eyed.

Given my previous experiences in places like Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Tunisia, I had taken time to explain to my daughters that they needed to be on their toes, alert to everything and prepared for anything. And if this is true of anywhere in the world, it’s this UNESCO world heritage site – the main trading square at one end of the Sahara. A place where snake charmers rub shoulders with dancers and story-tellers … where, by day, trade is everything and, by night, flavoursome Berber food takes centre stage.

Snake charmersI wanted the three of us to cut a fine line between taking it all in and being taken in. Toothless Bedouin women were keen on grabbing my daughters’ arms to try and start a black henna tattoo, before anyone had time to object. Encouraged by me, they were just about holding their own. I could see that they were loving the experience and slightly terrified at the same time. Exactly the reasons why I had brought them to this riveting, intoxicating city.

We then came across a gentle, smiling street seller who had a slab of thick gingerbread, resting on a plank placed across an upturned crate. He had little tasters of this confection and the aroma of treacly ginger enticed us over. He calmly and politely offered us each a piece, starting with my younger daughter and ending with me. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the most incredible, moist, chewy, sweet, fragrant delight that any of us had ever tasted. It was angel food and its maker knew it.

He motioned towards the 2ft by 1ft slab on the plank … “would you like to buy some to eat in the park over there?” He pointed to a pretty spot just beyond the square, with cooling shade provided by verdant date palms. The girls turned their gaze on me. They clearly wanted more of this delicious treat, but I needed to show them that guardedness equated to survival in this place.

“How much is it?”, I ventured. “Only thirty dirhams for one hundred grams, sir”. Ok. About two pounds sterling. That would work. Dad would be a hero and it wouldn’t cost him an arm and a leg. “Ok. We’ll take some.” The girls were beaming. Our new friend hovered his large knife halfway down the slab. “This much?” “No, no, no”, I exclaimed. He slid his knife to halve the half. “This much?” I pointed to half of that piece. He swiftly brought his knife down and wrapped the piece up in some grease-proof paper, smiling at me and my daughters.

He then proceeded to bring a set of electronic scales from under the crate and plonked our portion onto them. “That’ll be three hundred dirhams, sir.” About twenty quid! I looked suspiciously at the scales, but they were proudly displaying 1.05kg. It appears that he’d let me off the odd fifteen dirhams. I picked up the gingerbread and handed it to my elder daughter. To be fair, it did feel the weight of a bag of sugar.

Muttering under my breath, I took three hundred dirhams out and gave the baker a look that said ‘we both know what’s gone on here’ and shepherded my girls to the park.

A few moments later, we were sitting on a cool bench, relishing the spicy treat. What had The Commercial Traveller learnt? Firstly, that really understanding units of measure is so vital when it comesJemma evening to negotiation. I know what a kilo is and I know how much a dirham is worth. The seller had not been at all disingenuous. I had bought what I asked for. My problem was that I didn’t factor in density. When negotiating, knowing how much of a product or service you need is way more important than a deal that might be on offer.

Secondly, there is a lesson about the value of a product or service. My first inclination was that I had been ripped off …. that he might have ‘got me’ this time, but that is never a way to treat your customers. However, sitting there in the park with my two daughters, enraptured whilst chomping this exquisite slab of rich perfection, my annoyance started to melt away. Maybe that moment, in retrospect, had a value that easily equalled two tenners.

I bet the baker has daughters.


Photos kindly provided by

Too high to eat

My appetite was non-existent.

This was the predominant altitude sickness symptom that I suffered whilst trekking to Everest Base Camp, at a height of 5,364m or 17,598ft. It had been 3 days since I had reached the camp and I had made the descent back into Lukla. Although I had knocked 2,500m off my altitude, the effects of the thin air had not yet worn off. So despite using up well over 5,000 calories per day, I was struggling to take on 500.

But there I was, at the end of my trek, feeling for all the world like a conquering hero, strolling into Lukla ‘high street’. Lukla is vital to trekking in the Everest region, as it has an airport and so provides a beginning and an end to many an adventure. Unsurprisingly, it is a thriving town – there’s nothing like a captive market. Visitors on the way up buy trekking gear, hire guides and maybe imbibe their last beer before setting off. People at the end of their trek – like me – crave a shower, to feel ‘normal’ again and to secure a vital boarding pass for a plane back to Kathmandu.

So there are two distinct markets in Lukla – those starting out and returnees. And the ‘high street’ was equally divided between the two. And this is commerce as its most basic. Supply and demand. Haggling expected. Premiums applied due to lack of competition. I’ve got it, you need it, pay through the nose. But in true Nepalese style, this was all done with a certain grace and politeness.

A particular aspect of this world stuck out to The Commercial Traveller – the tongue-in-cheek rip-offs of Western brands. Even in myP1010037 weary state, completely spent from the toughest physical and mental challenge of my life, the corners of my mouth formed a wry smile at the sight of the Yakdonalds sign. And I’m not entirely sure that Seattle HQ is aware of the Lukla branch of Starbucks. Which got me thinking about ‘passing off’- making some false representation likely to induce a person to believe that the goods or services are those of another.

Of course, in markets where McDonalds and Starbucks may want to operate, it is vital that they protect their marques. Their share prices include a substantial premium for the value of their brands. The fact that establishments in this Himalayan town, that has never seen a car, feel that playing with those names is good for business is testament to the value of the brands.

So how do you develop brand value if you are small business? Clearly, it is impossible to become a global name in all markets. That takes investment running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But it is important to gain reputation. You just have to be really focussed on the circles in which you wish to be known and keep them small and contained. It would be more valuable to be the most highly recognised employment law firm in a county, for instance, than one with scant recognition over a wider geographical area or over multiple specialisms.

Not only is this focus good for the value of your brand, but it makes marketing easier too. Don’t be all things to all men. Be crystal clear about your target market and then speak to them with a consistent, authoritative voice. They will end up knowing exactly where to look when they have a need for your product or service. And that is what brands are built upon, with the added benefit that your business valuation will increase.

Over the next few days, my appetite got back to normal.

And I, for one, can vouch for the yakburgers.