• Branded Culture – Ingredients For Brand Success

    Union Square, New York, lunch time. My wife Poh Lan and I had just

    bought a few books from the enormous Barnes and Noble book

    store. Hunger was quickly rolling in, like dark, ominous tropical

    thunderclouds. We turned right as we left the store and crossed the

    road. We found ourselves in front of Pret a Manger, a very inviting

    sandwich shop. We enjoyed the experience of eating delicious,

    healthy sandwiches in a very pleasant, casual environment. By the

    time we had left this shop, we were two people among the 90+% of

    customers who say they will recommend Pret to a friend1or in your

    case, to my readers.

    Branded Customer Service

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    I was so taken by the experience that I decided to find out more

    about this company. As it turns out, Pret a Manger (translated from

    French to English: “ready to eat”) is a successful UK-based fresh

    sandwich chain with over 200 shops in the UK. It has about 25

    shops in the US and Hong Kong. I contacted the Pret head office

    and, after a few emails, was put into contact with Sarah Lee, MD of

    Pret a Manger in Hong Kong.

    Sarah’s early work experience was in the hotel and restaurant

    industry. This is a tough business to be in, involving long hours, and

    weekends with 2am finishes. And then, in 1997, Sarah discovered

    Pret a Manger. “I found this dynamic company where you work 8

    hours a day with some amazing people. It was absolutely fantastic,”

    she said. Pret in Hong Kong is Sarah’s baby – she shifted there in

    2002 to open Pret’s first shops in the Asian market and became MD

    in 2008.

    Driven by a Mission

    I was interested in the key factors behind the Pret brand experience.

    As it turned out, Pret’s success revolves around a few simple and

    wholesome ingredients. “The most important is the food,” said

    Sarah. “We all want to be best in class and we all want to be

    innovative in what we do. We try not to launch products for the sake

    of it, but, rather, we try to give customers what they really, really

    want – and that is beautiful, nutritious sandwiches.” It was just the

    start of the interview and Sarah had me salivating on the feast of

    “success clues” that I was being served. She spoke passionately

    about the product. But, if we delve a little deeper, she is driven by

    something more meaningful – a simple Mission which has not

    changed since Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham opened the

    first Pret a Manger shop in 1986. They founded Pret based on the

    proposition of providing fresh, wholesome, handmade, sandwiches

    that are natural without the use of chemicals, additives or

    preservatives. And, weaved into Sarah’s language is a strong

    customer focus and admiration for both her company and her team

    members. These are great fundamentals that are the building blocks

    of successful companies. By now I was excited to learn more about

    how Pret has built its brand over the last 24 years.


    are driven by

    a simple

    Mission that

    has not


    since 1986

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    Relentless focus on quality

    Julian Metcalfe still works in the business and leads by example.

    “Julian is relentless about the food. Just good enough is not good

    enough. Our simple chocolate brownie has been changed about 34

    times! It’s invigorating and exciting to work for a company that is so

    eager to improve what we sell,” Sarah said. In this simple statement,

    Sarah shares another key ingredient to the Pret success recipe –

    leadership by example. As you will see below, Pret works really hard

    to keep leadership and management grounded and connected to

    what is happening at the customer interface.

    Focus on people

    “After product, the second most important ingredient is our team. No

    good company can operate without people who are proud of what

    they do and the company that they work for. Without our people we

    are nothing,” she said.

    The starting point is to get the right people on board. “We recruit

    people for their confidence and personality, not necessarily for their

    experience,” she said. “We believe that we can train and coach

    anyone to achieve their goals if they have the attributes that we want

    to see,” she continued. I found Sarah’s use of language to be

    interesting. Rather than talk about the individual achieving the

    company’s goals, she spoke about individuals achieving their goals.

    You learn a lot about a company from the language that its leaders


    The company looks for 3 core behaviours in its recruits:

    • The first is Teamwork. Sarah described people who have the

    makings of being good team members as being sociable, fun

    and charming.

    • The second behaviour is Clear Thinking – people who are

    sensitive, thoughtful, interesting and straight forward. This

    behaviour is important as Pret wants everyone in the

    organisation to feel confident to talk to fellow team members

    or managers.

    • The third is Passion – that is, people who have pride,

    ownership, high standards and go the extra mile.

    “These 3 behaviours will determine whether a person gets recruited,

    or not. We have a very good appraisal system that is built around

    these behaviours. More behaviours are added as you go higher,”

    she explained.

    The founder,



    leads by


    “No good

    company can



    people who

    are proud of

    what they


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    Pret puts a lot of effort into training its people. There is training for

    new starters through to senior managers who have been with the

    company for many years. There is a comprehensive 10-day training

    session for every person who joins the company. “It’s a big

    investment, but it’s definitely worth it,” she said.

    Building teamwork between head office and operations

    In most companies, there is a divide between head office and

    operations. But not at Pret. Twice a year, Head Office employees,

    around the world, from the CEO down spend, a day working as

    normal shop team members. “We call this our buddy system. It helps

    head office team members stay in touch with what life is like in the

    shop,” Sarah explained. “They get to speak with people, talk about

    how they are feeling and what they are doing. They have a bit of fun

    and also understand what the team members are going through,”

    she said. It keeps head office people grounded in the practical

    realities of the business. “When you are creating a new sandwich in

    head office, it’s easy to do in a remote environment. But you cannot

    know how the team member feels and how much hard work it is

    when you are just working in the head office environment,” she said.

    The buddy system helps all facets of the operation. For example,

    head office Design Department employees get a first hand feel of

    whether their designs will work for team members and customers.

    The Communications team will get a better understanding of

    whether the marketing materials are easy to maintain. All in all, the

    system helps head office employees think through all possibilities

    from a shop point of view, a team member’s point of view and from

    the customer point of view.

    The buddy system has a big impact in reinforcing the Pret culture.

    “It’s incredibly powerful. Team members love it. No matter whether

    they are new team members or have been there for a long time, they

    feel that they are valued and that people listen to their opinions,” she

    continued. “The shops close at 3pm and the buddy may take the

    group out to socialize together. It helps to build the bonds,” she said.



    build a sense

    of ONE team


    head office



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    Incentives to encourage desired behaviours

    Pret a Manger understands the power of incentives to encourage the

    desired individual and team behaviours. Everyone from head office

    through to the shops is incentivized through various forms of bonus

    and reward and recognition programmes. Sarah explained that one

    of the most powerful incentives is through the Pret mystery shopper

    program. Mystery shoppers make weekly visits to every Pret shop.

    They assess the customer experience eg, the presentation of the

    food, the tidiness of the shop, whether the team members are

    engaging and pleasant. If the shop scores a minimum of 90% on the

    mystery shopper rating, each team member is given a bonus. And if

    the mystery shopper feels that a team member has delivered above

    and beyond service, that person gets an “Outstanding Card” and an

    on-the-spot bonus. In the UK this is 50 pounds. If, over a month, a

    team gets 100% on the mystery shopper scores and team members

    get 2 Outstanding Cards, then the company will pay for the whole

    team to have a night out and will subsidize the team to the tune of

    300 pounds! This encourages both teamwork and individual flair and

    personality in the customer experience.

    I’m getting even more excited. Where was Pret a Manger when I

    was eking out a living as a student? I can see myself now, proudly

    accepting an extra 50 big ones in my pay packet. It would certainly

    give me the incentive to keep on my service toes. After all, I wouldn’t

    know which customer is a mystery shopper, so I would treat every

    customer as if he or she is the bearer of my next 50 quid!

    And there is more! Just imagine yourself wearing a badge of honour

    for delivering amazing service. Pret goes one step further – the

    badge of honour is worth money! The company commissioned

    Tiffany’s, the very upmarket jeweller, to create “Tiffany Stars”. These

    are given to team members where customers have written in to say

    that they have done “an amazing job.”

    The incentive system helps to create both individual and team

    excellence. Sarah commented, “All of the incentives help to build

    strong bonds and strong teamwork which are essential to the

    operation of a successful shop. The incentive system creates

    friendly competition between areas. It becomes an exciting and fast

    moving environment to work in. People are rewarded as individuals

    and as teams.”

    Everyone –

    from head

    office to

    shop team

    members – is


    to encourage

    the right


    and results

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    General Managers of each shop are incentivized on a broader range

    of factors eg, in terms of how well they maintain the right values in

    the shop. A General Manager can add 30% to his salary in bonuses,

    and will triple that if he or she is the top manager of the quarter! “I

    don’t want to sound as if there is money thrown at them. Being a

    General Manager is a demanding job. One minute you have to have

    your business hat, on, the next it’s the team hat on and then your

    customer hat. You are juggling many balls in the air. It’s a

    demanding job, but hopefully it’s a fulfilling job,” said Sarah.

    Having Fun

    The Pret culture is focused on teamwork, sharing, caring and

    communicating. The company has many social events. We make

    sure that everyone has a good time!” said Sarah. In the UK, there is

    a company Christmas party and a Summer party and sponsored

    Friday night drinks for team members. In Hong Kong, where there is

    a different culture, Pret takes teams out for a dinner every quarter

    when someone from head office comes to visit. “It’s all about team

    members enjoying themselves. The social event gets people talking

    together and keeping the DNA strong and consistent,” she said.

    An energetic start to each day

    Pret staff start early in the morning – as early as 5am, ready for

    another day of making hundreds of sandwiches and creating the

    Pret customer experience. There is a team briefing in each shop at

    6.45am each day. This gets the team communicating and energised.

    There are customer feedback forms in each shop. The General

    Manager will share any customer feedback from the previous day

    and the team will talk them through. This meeting also gives the

    General Manager the opportunity to share information from head

    office and also to play fun games that aim to drive the right

    behaviours. For example, to encourage attention to detail, the team

    might play “spot the mistake” in the shop. Or, if there has been a

    complaint that it took too long to make the coffee, there might be a

    coffee making competition. There are fun rewards in the form of, for

    example, a piece of cake. They are just little things, but they make a

    big difference to create team energy. Pret provides a catalogue of

    games, and Managers make others up on the spot. It all helps to

    keep the communication going and to keep improving a behaviour.



    for people to

    mix socially

    Pret shops

    start every



    with fun

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    The shop environment

    A key challenge is to get the right location. And then it’s a matter of

    creating an environment in the shops that will add to the customer

    experience. Sarah explained that 20 years ago, Pret shops were

    decked out in trendy stainless steel. This has shifted to wooden

    floors, wallpaper, carpet and the use of lighting. “The company has

    learnt over the years how lighting affects your experience when you

    are in the shop. Over the last few years we have constantly tried to

    make it better for the customer,” said Sarah. The major project in

    2009 was making Pret’s toilets better for customers1It was called

    Project Flush!

    In conclusion2

    When you read the business books, they will say to keep your

    strategy simple. They will say, “Be driven by a simple Mission.” They

    will say, “Focus on your people and to listen to your customers.” Pret

    does this and more. The result is a brand experience that compels

    people like me to tell thousands of other people – like you. And, no

    doubt, one day, you will have the opportunity to savour the Pret

    customer experience. I have just scratched the surface on Pret a

    Manger, and am sure that I could write a book on the company. I will

    leave the last word to Sarah. I asked her to describe the Pret a

    Manger customer experience. She said, “As a customer, you know

    that you can rely on us and trust us. You will be greeted by one of

    the wonderful people behind the tills. Over the years, and across

    borders the experience remains the same. It’s about wonderful food

    and fantastic service. It has always been there and will always be

    there. And it will always be delivered by our wonderful people.”

    This article was first published in Marketing Magazine, Malaysia,

    March 2010.

    Copyright © 2009 by George Aveling

    Share the knowledge! Please feel free to share this knowledge.

    You have permission to distribute and copy this article providing you

    acknowledge George Aveling, CEO of TMI, as the owner of the


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