The Secret Marketer on the service station battleground


I am looking forward to a full week in the office after the bank holiday recess. I am hopelessly behind on all things admin, not helped by spending most of last week out of the office as I presented at a series of regional sales meetings. My week on the road is an annual pilgrimage and one that I greatly enjoy.

One thing I must make sure to catch up on sooner rather than later is my expenses claim. Driving around these days isn’t as cheap as it used to be and my credit card has taken a battering. It’s not just the fuel, but the snacking temptations that lay en route. It seems the coffee shops
have mapped out a roll-out plan across the nation’s motorway network that is akin to the strategy of their fast-food forefathers.

According to Costa’s advertising campaign, seven out of 10 coffee lovers choose its brand ahead of Starbucks and Nero. It would have been interesting to see what respondents might have said if they’d been surveyed at the motorway services. I suspect most would have complained about the shameless premium pricing tariffs, hugely variable product quality, stuttering service and blatant upselling tactics that now predominate.

“There is little aspiration in this espresso roadside revolution: it is merely a pit stop provided by brands with no differentiation”

The rise of the coffee shop on our high streets was underpinned by brand experience. But there is little aspiration in this espresso roadside
revolution: it is now merely a pit stop, a refuel provided by a range of brands that lack any real form of differentiation as they apply their branding to a commercial land-grab opportunity. Such is the franchise operation tension in these roadside outlets that my Starbucks loyalty card is not accepted at them.

The landlords of these motorway services have long since worked out that it is easier for established high street brands to command premium pricing than trying to do it themselves, and as such are happy to hand over the keys in return for a share of the beans. I was interested to read recently that Costa had acquired the Coffee Nation vending business. The plan is to rebrand 900 or so vending points as Costa Express. No doubt there will be more boastful, corporate testosterone-fuelled ads coming our way soon as each brand seeks to work out who has the grandest chain of lattes of all.

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