How Pret used customer insight to shape its new veggie pop-up strategy

After leaning on insight from a customer poll, Pret A Manger is set to launch a standalone vegetarian shop and group marketing director Mark Palmer believes more brands should crowdsource ideas from the public to ensure new launches are successful.

Pret is to launch its first standalone vegetarian store – Pret’s Little Veggie Pop-up – in June after listening to consumer feedback and seeing a double digit sales rise in healthy vegetarian options in 2015. It will feature 40 exclusive lines including cauliflower rice and ‘courgette spaghetti’ pots as well as open rye bread sandwiches.

The move comes after, Pret’s CEO Clive Schlee wrote a blog last summer discussing the idea of opening new cafes that only serve non-meat options. And after receiving 10,000 votes in favour of the scheme, the chain decided to progress and test out the format.

Pret has seen its veggie options spike in popularity over recent years. Palmer says its ‘Super Bowls’ range, which launched last year, was the first time in Pret’s history that a vegetarian option (in this instance one with beetroot, squash and feta cheese) outsold a new line’s meat options.

Crowdsourcing ideas from Pret customers

Palmer says the standalone veggie pop-up could “quite easily” result in a rollout of permanent sites if successful. But ultimately it is an opportunity to test new vegetarian lines and show customers that the company is listening to their views. That is something, Palmer says, other brands often neglect.

He explains: “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 you brand, you need to take them seriously.”

not just for veggies
Pret’s new in-store marketing campaign will promote its vegetarian and vegan options

Relying on word of mouth buzz

Pret has a different approach to marketing than many of its high street rivals, with almost no budget for above-the-line. The brand’s marketing is creatively led in-house while its ad budget is almost solely pumped into in-store campaigns and using social to talk to regular customers.

To highlight its focus on veggie options, Pret recently launched an in-store marketing campaign, ‘Not Just for Veggies’, to promote its non-meat options, while all vegetarian lines have new greener packaging that makes them stand out more clearly from their meat-based counterparts.

And Palmer says there are no plans to deviate from this type of marketing activity, with Pret primarily relying on word of mouth buzz for the new pop-up shop. “People tend to see we’re doing something new and it creates significant attention – there’s no need to spread it ourselves,” he adds. “There are no plans to become a brand that wastes money on above the line advertising.”

In particular, he says the marketing industry is currently made up of brands that crowdsource ideas from the public via expensive campaigns just to tick a box.

“I do worry whether the marketing industry wants to truly listen or is just trying to be cool and to tick a box,” he muses. “Customers will be much more engaged with your brand if you are prepared to share some of the stuff you are working on.”

Being less secretive

Last year Pret started a trial for a fine dining evening concept at its Strand-based store in London. In a bid to take night trade from bars and restaurants, the site changed its service from 6pm to 11pm to include menus, crockery and jazz music.

Palmer says it is exploring ways to expand the ‘Good Evenings’ concept to other sites under a “different guise” and that, although it isn’t imminent, Pret “absolutely has the potential to become a restaurant chain one day”.

Pret VEGGIE
Pret didn’t want to be secretive about its plans for the new veggie pop-up

Ultimately, he says the restaurant concept, along with the veggie pop-up, prove that brands can no longer be secretive about new projects. He says Pret will continue to crowdsource ideas through blogs as it makes “good business sense.”

“You cannot be too secretive anymore. In the old days it was cloak and dagger. People would test TV ads in East Anglia and think nobody would see them. But now it must be about transparency and open collaboration, to put ideas out into the public domain,” explains Palmer.

“Usually a brand will create a new concept, like the veggie store, and commit to rolling it out across hundreds of sites. But why? That is risky. Just because we have an idea, it doesn’t need to have a huge rollout straight away. Financially that makes little sense. It is lower risk to be patient. To take a learning from one site and then apply that innovation across the business.”

Commitment to healthy options

Palmer also questions whether the government’s sugar tax for fizzy drinks, which will only impact four of Pret’s drink products, has picked unfairly on one sector. Ultimately, brands can avoid a lot of hassle by tapping into the nation’s hunger for healthy snacking options, he says.

Recent Mintel research found that that just 39% of Britons are now snacking on cakes and sweet baked goods between meals – down from 51% in 2014. And Pret’s mini egg and spinach protein pot, aimed at the snacking market, was its fastest growing new product in 2015, shifting 1.4 million units.

“We’re not seeing a reduction in snacking whatsoever. Snacking is growing faster than ever, it’s just how people snack and what they choose to snack on that is changing.”

Pret’s CMO Mark Palmer

Palmer concludes: “People are moving from artificial snacks to real food and clean eating, so dried fruits and protein boxes are growing massively. You can be a snacking brand but you have to understand that people only want to snack sensibly and with balance these day. A chocolate bar is now a once a week kind of thing, while health eating is something people want to do daily.”

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