Marketing A Negative

May 30th, 2007

One of the things I really enjoy about the UK is the widespread availability of “instant takeaway food.” It’s very easy to find something in a plastic wrapper that is of relatively good quality. By no means should the quality of plastic-wrapped foods be the final measure of a culture, but it sure is nice have affordable, tasty picnic lunch within about 5 minutes reach.

People in the US who haven’t visited the UK probably don’t understand. Sure we have “fast food.” We even have a culture dominated by fast food. But the food we get from a restaurant like McDonalds actually takes longer and is less tasty than the food people in the UK can pick up off the shelf at a store like Pret a Manger. Not only do they have a wide selection of cold sandwiches (made fresh that day, it seems), but they’ve even got hot wraps under heat lamps that, miraculously, are tasty and melty when you open them up 15 minutes after buying them.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I suspect that the popularity of Pret in the UK has probably had a huge influence on the entire “ready-made food” market there. While most chain restaurants in the US strive to be the next McDonalds, most chain markets, delis, newsagents, drug stores, supermarket, everybody in the UK strives to be the next Pret – or at least keep you from going to Pret. Thats how it seemed to me, anyway.

I like Pret, and I appreciate what I assume they’ve done for the UK food landscape. I like them so much that I decided to spend some of my free time just browsing their corporate home page. While taking in various facts about the company I was amused to see this clever example of “marketing a negative”:

They’ve used the predictability of a “franchising” link on fast-food websites as a means of drawing attention to the fact that they don’t. The “Franchising” link rates top level placement at most fast-food corporate sites because they’re hoping business people will notice the link and decide to open a new location:

So what use is the “Franchising” link on the Pret page? It’s not there for the hapless business person who’s curious about opening a franchise. It’s there to demonstrate for all who view it that Pret is too cool for franchising. You’d like to replicate us, but it just can’t be done. We’re above the fray when it comes to all of your typical fast-food expectations, especially when it comes to franchising:

“Franchising – sorry we don’t. Please don’t call us and ask for a franchise because we don’t; we really don’t. We don’t franchise. The fact is, we don’t like to franchise, so we don’t.”

Giving top-billing to these sassy statements next to feel-good headings like “natural food,” “good jobs,” and “sustainability” gives viewers the impression that Pret is a real exception. Finally, a fast-food chain that’s bucking the trend in all the important ways. They’re so warm and fuzzy, surely it’s all right for me to eat here, even several times a week! It’s good for the environment, I think. And will solve world hunger and eventually end all war. Pret for all!

In fact, Pret’s and McDonald’s corporate pages couldn’t be more different. Pret is the anti-Ronald and McDonalds is the anti-Pret. Which is why it’s so amusing that McDonalds owns 1/3 of Pret! (Thanks to Marko Karppinen for pointing this out to me). Clearly Pret recognizes the friction this may cause in their customers’ thinking. Doesn’t being part-owned by the anti-Pret cast doubt on their rosy public image? Pret responds accordingly:

“McDonald’s do not have any direct influence over what we sell or how we sell it; nor would they want to. They have invested in Pret because they like what we do.”

Why would a multi-national corporation want to have influence over a business they own a full third of?

Pret really knows how to market a negative.

19 Responses to “Marketing A Negative”

  1. Stephan Cleaves Says:

    Mmmm, Pret! I don’t know if all visitors to the UK discover Pret a Manger, but my wife and I did on our honeymoon. Every once in a while I’ll hear of it, think of it, or see a photo of a store on Flickr and fondly recall the sandwiches we took away. I was also introduced to the phrase Take Away, which I much prefer to our Take Out. If you do find yourself in the UK, particularly London, I highly recommend stopping at a Pret!

  2. PGM Says:

    Actually, what’s really good about the UK food market is the huge amount of cheap Indian restaurants.

  3. Jonathan Wight Says:

    I only knew of one Pret a Manger back when I lived in the UK, it was on Oxford St. IIRC. So the whole thing is news to me.

    The situation seems to be similar to Chipotle. Damn good fast food (I loves me some burritos) but without all the crap that goes with fast food. Turned out they were mostly owned by McDonald’s too (although according to the omniscient wiki the clown sold most of his shares of Chipotle recently).

  4. Jonathan Wight Says:

    And I concur with PGM. I sorely miss indian takes out.

  5. DDA Says:

    “Why would a multi-national corporation want to have influence over a business they own a full third of?”

    I believe that if McDonald’s is smart, they actually don’t want to have influence over Pret just because Pret is the anti-McDonald’s. If what MickeyDs does works, they make money however if people go to Pret to get away from MickeyDs, then MickeyDs makes money too. If they were basically the same, they wouldn’t capture both types of customers.

    One of the things that made Berkshire Hathaway what it is is that they buy well run profitable companies and then…leave them alone! After all, they worked before the acquisition, why shouldn’t they continue to work after?

  6. Greg Smith Says:

    Sounds a lot like in-n-out burgers.

  7. Drew Thaler Says:

    Pret is terrific. We go to London for work every so often, and we’re always like “ooh, let’s go to Pret for lunch”. The guys at the UK office are less enthusiastic about it … probably that old saying, familiarity breeds contempt. They don’t mind it, it’s just not a great lunch to them. :-)

    It’s surprising how ubiquitous ready-to-eat cold sandwiches are in London… it’s not just Pret. You will find a cooler full of them in any convenience store or druggist, and often there’ll be three or four in the space of a single city block. I don’t know if it’s because of the larger amount of foot traffic in the city or if it’s just a cultural quirk. Something has to be everywhere — perhaps here it’s burgers, there it’s cold sandwiches.

  8. alexr Says:

    The convenience stores in Tokyo all seem to have similarly good quality ready-to-eat food. One wouldn’t normally think of eating at am/pm, but in Tokyo it’s actually good. (Although I prefer Pret as well.)

  9. Aaron Burghardt Says:

    “If they were basically the same, they wouldn’t capture both types of customers.”

    Very true. Also, by owning Pret, McDonald’s can study their business more closely and incorporate practices that also make sense for them (but I suspect that’s not a primary reason for owning Pret).

  10. Bob Peterson Says:

    Where do y’all live in the U.S.A.? Around here, west of Boston, every last grocery store and convenience store has wrapped cold sandwiches ready to go.

  11. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Bob: a lot of people in the US retort with this. But until you’ve seen the sheer quantity and quality of cold-wrapped sandwiches in the UK, it’s impossible to understand the difference. The picture here gives a good idea of what a sandwich takeaway section looks like in the UK.

  12. Julian Cheal Says:

    Glad you enjoyed Pret Daniel. I only discovered Pret when my girlfriend took me to Leeds this last weekend.

    We don’t have one where we live (as it is the countryside two hours from any major town or city!) so I really enjoyed it when I was there. It is a bit pricey, but I guess you get what you pay for.

    Saying that, we have really good independent organic coffee shops were we live.

  13. Adrian Says:

    “Not only do they have a wide selection of cold sandwiches (made fresh that day, it seems)”

    Only a Brit would think it’s a bonus rather than a necessity for a sandwich to be less than a day old! Bless you Daniel.

  14. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Adrian: to be clear, I’m not a Brit. I’m from the US. In the US it seems quite common for sandwiches in plastic wrappers to be of some age greater than one day old.

  15. Bob Peterson Says:

    OK, cool. This reminds me a little of a modern version of an automat!

  16. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Bob: Yeah, totally!

  17. Adrian Says:

    Heh, well don’t I look silly. The possibility had occurred to me (after I’d posted).

    When I moved to the UK in the mid-nineties I was alarmed to discover those sandwiches in triangular plastic boxes bearing use-by dates – they just seemed like such a crime against food. It was surprisingly difficult to find decent espresso in London too and I gradually realised that this was part of a bigger picture: you could get brilliant food at expensive restaurants but the day-to-day experience was going to be a bit grim. “Make it grim; if possible, make it dire,” seemed to be the philosophy.

    Luckily, the beer was good.

    Sandwiches are a plentiful lunchtime option here too. They tend to come from characterful cafes and be made with fresh ingredients and bread from real bakeries. Yum. Plastic boxes have found their way here, but they’re restricted to places like petrol stations where expectations are low anyway.

  18. András Puiz Says:

    I’ve been thinking hard about this, and I’m still not sure if this constitutes “marketing a negative.” True, in the most concrete, literal sense of the expression, “no franchising” is a negative, but then so would be “no bugs,” or just about anything that describes the lack of something.

    To me, this is less of a negative and more of a business choice: while many fast food corporations choose to sell franchises, thereby sending their customers to a franchisee rather than dealing directly with them, Pret a Manger chooses to operate each outlet itself.

    This may only be a negative for prospective franchisees, but definitely not for customers.

  19. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    András: good points. But one difference between your example, “no bugs,” and the no franchise marketing is that software bugs are universally reviled. To take an even more extreme example, it wouldn’t be marketing a negative to say “No Murder” on the front page a of web site.

    I guess what I think is interesting about the Pret approach is the way that they fully and publicly embrace a negative that at least some of the public will also agree is a negative.

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