It was only meant to be a retail report at the backend of the Tuesday Standard. But when Pret A Manger CEO Clive Schlee let slip that he has given his baristas the power to hand out free drinks or food to customers the interview became one of the paper’s most read stories. Over the next few days all the national papers were sending their reporters to flex their flirting muscles and imbibe some of the Pret Buzz. The story was picked up by a handful of regional papers and a few international titles (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal). On twitter happy customers are posting their freebies and google searches for Pret A Manger increased to its highest number since January 2012 when its first French outlet opened (google trends – see graphs).
Over last 90 days
Over last 7 days
That the freebie scheme has been in operation for some time (it was mentioned here over a week ago) is beside the point. Schlee’s decision to mention it to the Standard this week is classic diversion PR. Last week it emerged that one of its sandwiches contains more calories than a McDonald’s quarter pounder. As journos do, old stories were dug up of frozen chicken of uncertain origin and Pret’s reputation for good honest grub was once again in the spotlight.
Keen to not let these critical angles tarnish the good news he was announcing – Pret’s sales are up by 16% and an ambitious expansion is on the horizon – Schlee used the headline grabbing customer rewards story to reposition the narrative. Everyone loves a freebie and the story got reporters going into the stores and consuming rather than nosing around into what goes into the products.
And then there’s the whiff of controversy – the marmite parameter. The idea of rating a customer on the basis of his or her attractiveness seems to go against all the faux egalitarian positivity of marketing spin – it’s sexy, and so am I. Although the discrimination is positive and not directly contravening any equality legislation it certainly stirs up discussion, especially when people don’t get the free coffee they now feel they deserve.
Marmite approaches by their nature carry risk – Pret could be seen by some as a peddler of disingenuous customer buzz. But the coffee chain market is an intensely competitive field and to stand out you need to offer more than just a tasty brew. With that burgundy fascia and Broadway-style lettering, the wood-effect laminated floor and white stone walls, there’s something just a bit kitsch about Pret that the cheeky freebies so brilliantly tap into.