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By 8th September 2017July 12th, 2019No Comments

Waiting times, guacamole and fast horses. Over to you…

It’s midday in the city, you’ve had a rushed morning and it’s time to find lunch. As always, there’s a plethora of options to choose from: the tried-and-trusted McDonalds? Or do you want to spend a bit more time in a real restaurant? Maybe you’ll go for the quick-and-easy Sainsbury’s Meal Deal because… well, it’s easy.

Whether you’re a city resident or a visitor, you’re sure to have faced this scenario at some point. And just as likely, you will have chosen the burgundy banner and 5-point sheriff star of Pret A Manger. But what is it that provokes that irresistible urge to visit a Pret?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently: What is it that attracts me to choose a particular brand over other alternatives? It’s a valuable question for marketers to ask and it really helps when you’re trying to put yourself in your customers’ shoes.

So, think back to when you last visited a Pret store. What was it that attracted you? Was it the exciting vibes from the ‘Pret Buzz’ luring you in? Maybe your conscience told you it’s time for a healthy lunch? Or you relented to peer pressure and followed your friends through the door?

Sometimes it’s really hard to work out why you chose a particular brand. But that’s what makes it a valuable exercise. Because rest assured, brands like Pret A Manger will have invested huge amounts of time and hard work to discover exactly what they want to be, what makes them special and how they can capitalise on that.

There’s a few things they’ve done really well that I think set them apart.

So what’s the secret?


You may have noticed that there are almost as many cashiers behind the counter as there are customers in the queue. OK, that may be an exaggeration but have a look next time – often there will be 3-4 cashiers per metre of counter, plus a few more behind waving through the sea of heads.

There’s a reason behind this. Pret A Manger is translated from the French for ‘Ready to Eat’. As CEO Clive Schlee puts it “that means ready to eat, not ready to wait”.

They don’t believe in long waits because they know that is a frustration for customers, a friction point that could make the difference between a one-off customer and an advocate for life.

Humans invariably try to find the easiest route through everything, including when they buy. So what Pret have done is simple but clever – they’ve forensically tracked through every step of the customer journey (from the customer’s viewpoint, not their own) and made everything as easy as possible.

Bear in mind that these guys are a fast food chain. Fast food is one of the most competitive markets in the world. It is also one of the most crowded. But when you consider that it can take up to 10 minutes to wait for your latte machiatto in an agitated Starbucks queue at rush-hour compared to Pret’s target to serve customers within 60 seconds, it’s not hard to see why they’ve worked so hard to get this right.

The fast-food industry seems to have settled into the belief that if you want good quality food, you’ll have to wait for it. Sure, you can have it quickly but it won’t be as good.

Pret have turned that on its head because they understand that customers put convenience and speed of service over a lot of other aspects, including price. But they don’t want to sacrifice quality. And that leads me on to the next topic:


Pret’s approach to quality is quite clear for everyone to see. Whenever I think of Pret, the big statement that stands out is ‘made fresh in our kitchen every day’. So, instead of following the general fast food trend of factory-produced food put together like some kids building blocks, they’ve committed themselves to producing fresh, handmade food that actually tastes really good.

Here’s an example from Andrew Rolfe when he was CEO of Pret: “It would be easier to get tubs of guacamole instead of cutting fresh avocados in each kitchen in each shop but we stick to quality and taste.”

There’s countless other examples too: the fact that they never need to display sell-by dates on their food because they never keep anything overnight. Not only that, anything left at the end of the day is donated to homeless charities (more on that later).

So what’s the big deal? Surely they could cut quality, boost the taste with cheaper substitutes and make a higher margin? But why would they want to do that?

The thing is, Pret have carved out a very profitable niche for themselves with a focus on top quality. Even during the recession years, if customers know they can rely on good quality then they will continue to buy. It sounds counter-intuitive but it’s absolutely true.

As a friend of mine often reminds me, you cannot sacrifice quality; as soon as you do that, you erode trust with your customer. People are prepared to pay a bit more if they know they’re getting a superior product.

I can promise you that if I dissected your supermarket spend I’d find countless examples to prove you haven’t gone for the cheapest price every time. Why? Well, it can only be because you trust good quality brands and are prepared to pay more for them. But if one of these brands starts to downgrade the quality in a quest to lower their price (or, more likely, increase their margins) then you’ll notice it immediately and lose your trust in the brand.

So yes, Pret may charge 30% or so more than competitors but the difference in quality and taste is definitely more than 50% better (that’s not a factual figure by the way!)

The interesting point is that Pret don’t need to spend much on advertising to achieve such customer loyalty. They let the quality of their products speak for itself and their constant reminders (on food packaging, on their napkins etc) make sure that the message is drummed in good and proper.


“You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be passionate. So we hire passionate people and teach them to make sandwiches.” (Pret website)

Yes, I know. It’s me talking up the people again! Seriously though, doesn’t that just highlight the importance of people to the success of a brand? Look back through the blogs I’ve written about successful brands and it’s pretty clear that the right attitude to people has played a massive part in that success.

It’s possibly one of Pret’s strongest points. I often see posts on social media where customers are literally over the moon following a visit to Pret, simply because of the way they were treated.

A couple of months ago, some guy wrote that he’d sprinted into a Pret store to grab some food as he was running late for his train. The store manager noticed it and told him to take what he wanted and go; don’t worry about paying for it.

Now, in some businesses that manager would be disciplined or even fired for doing something like that. After all, that’s profit down the drain isn’t it?

Not for Pret it isn’t – they have just won themselves a customer for life, which is far more profitable. In fact, they’ve probably won several customers because that guy has told all his friends and splashed his story over social media.

There’s countless other examples too and it’s not just customers who the staff look out for. They are also encouraged to care for each other and give praise where it’s due. Amazing customer service is rewarded with an Outstanding Card for that employee, which equates to a monetary reward. But instead of pocketing the cash, it must be given to reward the colleagues who helped them achieve it; the team.

So how have they managed it? Well, the reason is simple – they’ve managed to get the brand values running right through the company and entrenched into their staff. There is no other explanation.

They’ve achieved this with their Academy which teaches new starters the ways and wonders of what they call the ‘Pret Buzz’. Here, employees’ skills are honed to fit with the characteristics of a great Pret worker: they’re measured on things like cheerfulness, clear-thinking, passion, teamwork. They’re encouraged to engage in small talk with customers, to contribute to the upbeat and noisy atmosphere instore.

“If you tell people what to say it will come across as false. We don’t do any of that. I think a lot of companies will talk about customer service. But we start before that. We create the happy team so that everything else flows.” (Andrea Wareham, Director of People. Source: The Guardian)

I think this statement says it all. It’s proof that a happy workforce equals happy customers and therefore a great business.


I love the way Pret have such a unique attitude to social responsibility. Rather than simply align themselves with a charity to share some of their profits (which is great but is often seen as being a bit empty), they have managed to put together a very genuine but simple program that has set them apart.

For me, their ‘food with no nightlife’ is one of the best examples of a brand genuinely doing good. They’ve taken something simple that they have an abundance of (leftover food that’s still perfectly safe and edible) and given it to where the need is highest (homeless charities).

So they’ve killed two birds with one stone here – they’re combating food waste, a hot topic right now, as well as helping the less fortunate. It’s simple but it’s hugely effective and the key thing is that it has caught the attention of the nation.

By doing this, they really do appear to be genuinely trying to help in whatever way they can. Sure, they may not be able to sponsor vast water projects in Saharan Africa but there’s stuff they can do, and they do it really well.

There’s all manner of other charity projects that they run but my point is that Pret is committed to doing a few things really well that fit with their brand message and just generally make sense.


“A lot of brands say vote for a change, when they’ve already made up their mind. It is just lazy. If customers are good enough to give you their time, you need to listen. Marketers find it hard to listen, they usually have their minds already made up. That is a mistake because if customers want to be part of your brand, you need to take them seriously.” (Mark Palmer, Marketing Director, Pret A Manger)

This is one of the best statements I’ve heard for a while. I love the fact Mark is acknowledging that ‘customers want to be part of your brand’. And most of the time, customers will be very willing to help make that brand experience even better, through feedback, product reviews etc.

Marketing and Sales teams are the closest to customers in any business. They are the ones who have direct contact with customers (and potential customers) every day. They know what works, what an ideal customer looks like and, just as importantly, what one doesn’t look like. They can sense how a customer is feeling, how they react to new products/services, whether a customer is ready to buy and so on…

But what is often missed is listening to customers before changes are made to products or brand evolutions, or when introducing new products to an existing market. It’s so important for the success of a brand that customers are listened to and that the feedback they give is woven into the fabric of change. After all, they’re the ones who are supposed to be buying into what you’re doing!

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying “if I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses”. The simple fact is, he obviously had listened to what people were saying. But the difference is, he took what they said they wanted (namely faster horses) and went deeper; he found out the ‘Why’.

Why did they want faster horses? Well it’s obvious isn’t it, they wanted to travel faster. So Henry Ford read between the lines; he didn’t take customers words literally, he applied logic and good old common sense. He realised that their needs could be met (and exceeded) far better not by developing a faster breed of horse, but by replacing the horse with a mechanical one.

The art of listening isn’t just recording what the customer is saying. It’s about asking the right questions so that you can find out why they want what they’re asking for. And as Pret have shown, the best way to find out is to listen with an open mind, not with a premeditated idea of what you want to give your customers.

What’s in it for you?

Here’s a few key learnings from Pret:

Make it easy for your customers. You need to find out for yourself what it’s like to be a customer with your brand. Find out where the bottlenecks and friction points are, and then remove them. Enlist the help of your customers because after all they are the most experienced people in the world when it comes to buying from your brand. Make sure every single experience is continually de-frictioned (new word, but you know what I mean!);

Quality always sells. Remember the supermarket analogy I wrote about earlier? The very same principle applies to your customers; if you know that customers are assured of your quality and reliability, you can be assured that they’ll buy into it. Just don’t ever try to cut corners at the expense of quality, because your customers will notice;

Your brand is alive: it’s in your people. Your people are living and breathing the brand every day, like it or not. It’s up to you to make sure that it fits with the brand position that you want to achieve. If customers are supposed to buy into your brand then you better make sure that your people have first;

Communities do matter. Empathy is a very powerful emotion. In the modern age of relentless PR, we’d all do well to take a step back and ask ourselves why we’re supporting such-and-such a charity. If your brand is seen to support something that it’s passionate about, your customers will appreciate the authenticity;

Find out the ‘Why’. If you’re asking customers for feedback, or trying to find out the direction the market is going, you need to know why customers want what they ask for. If you can read between the lines and strip it back to simple questions like ‘What do they actually want?’ and then ‘How can I best answer that need?’, you’re onto a winner.

Do you know of a brand that is successful? How can you learn from what they do well? Maybe you own or manage a brand and want to share your story. Share your insight with us here…

This post is written by our marketing suit Simon Besley and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the company or anyone else for that matter; it’s intended to be a helpful review to dissect what I think the brand does well, and how we can all learn from it. If it’s helpful to you, then I’m happy…

Simon Besley

Author Simon Besley

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