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Cupcake Creativity

It’s been an usually busy Fall and my posting has been intermittent. Struggling to find an engaging way to get back into the thick of things, I’ve settled on cupcakes.

Gourmet cupcakes, as I may be the last to discover, are one of the hippest foodstuffs around. A partial list of cupcake purveyors around the U.S. includes Cupcake Royale (Seattle), Cupcakes (Chicago), Citizen Cupcake (San Francisco), Babycakes (New York), Magnolia (New York), Sweet Mandy B’s (Chicago), Cake Love (Washington, DC), and Cupcake Cafe (New York). Apologies in advance if I’ve left out your favorite; feel free to post a link in the Comments.

And, of course, Dozen Cupcakes, now making a cupcake-sized splash in Pittsburgh.

In other words, there is an entrepreneurial explosion in the cupcake arts, which leads me to wonder whether cupcake bakers worry about the bane of innovators everywhere: baked-goods piracy. And if they do, what, if anything do they do about it? Cupcake recipes are presumably not copyrightable; if the look of a given cupcake (or line of cupcakes) is protectable trade dress, it has to overcome a significant functionality objection. First mover advantage is pretty slight; the cupcake market, presumably, has low barriers to entry, and copying is easy. Cupcake makers likely have to look outside of mainstream IP to protect their market niches.

We know, for example, from Fauchart and von Hippel, that certain elite French chefs maintain an informal system of proprietary rights in recipes that are otherwise outside the formal IP system. And Raustiala and Sprigman argue that another innovative institution, fashion designers, seems to prosper not because it relies on informal systems of proprietary interests, but on none at all.

Are cupcake bakers more like French chefs (I’ll share my secret but trust you not to copy it), or like fashion designers (copy away; I’ll just innovate again)? Do upscale cupcake stores succeed because the food tastes fabulous, or because it is cool to eat (and be seen eating) a high-end cupcake?

And assuming that the answer is some of both, the question is what’s the best strategy for a would-be cupcake competitor? Focus on better ingredients and more intense flavor? Or go more stylish? Tastes great, in other words, or less filling?

There is, I suspect, some connection between the answer to that question and the strategies that existing cupcake retailers have used recently, and some connection between actual strategy and the stores’ marketing. Clearly, the question demands empirical research.

3 thoughts on “Cupcake Creativity”

  1. Interesting post. Frank you are correct about the inherent marketing and trust givving juggernaut that is the O. As total food lover/cook I totally agree about your French cook analogy. Recipes are for microwave cooking people, but technique is mastered. As any jazz musician will tell you, copying a solo lick is the most sincere form a flattery. I know many chefs that will tell you the same thing. I am sure their business partners don’t agree, but F them, chefs are artists too.

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