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.

Employees

are driven by

a simple

Mission that

has not

changed

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

use.

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,

Julian

Metcalfe,

leads by

example

“No good

company can

operate

without

people who

are proud of

what they

do2”

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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.

Buddy

systems

build a sense

of ONE team

between

head office

and

operations

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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

incentivized

to encourage

the right

behaviours

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.

Create

opportunities

for people to

mix socially

Pret shops

start every

day

early2and

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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