I remember my first interview with a convenience store chain.
I had just spent 9 fast-paced years with Little Caesars Pizza as the National Marketing Director – we went from 1,300 stores to 5,000 stores in less than 5 years – and my role was to oversee all of the field marketing for the company both at the regional and the grass-roots level. It was a daunting task, but the chain was growing so fast, no one at the company had time to think about it.
Little Caesars was a large company with revenues exceeding $3 billion. But, when the store growth subsided and I was approached by an equally-large convenience store chain to head up their marketing, I decided to listen. During the interview process, I was once asked by the CFO of this company “How are you going to adjust going from essentially one product [pizza] to managing 4,000 SKU’s in a convenience store?” This seemed like an interview-killing question, and then I realized that I didn’t have to make any of these 4,000 products. And that is the ultimate challenge of food service marketing – delivering on the expectation of a product that is created every day – every food order – by different operators.
The real beauty of a well-executed proprietary food service program is that it can make your brand unique. Convenience store items for the most part, are the same from store-to-store. I know that pricing, promotion and display can add some level of uniqueness, but essentially a Snickers® bar is the same from c-store to c-store.
Food service marketing has to take a different form then simply putting up a sign in a window screaming a price point. On-site prepared food is a very personal choice for a customer. Be it a sandwich or pizza, we all have our likes and dislikes. While there are a myriad of marketing ideas for promoting food service, the ones that makes or breaks your success are the ones that enable the customer to taste the product firsthand.
At Little Caesars, our local store marketing programs were built around the premise of “getting the product in the mouths of customers”. Every promotional event attempted to involve tasting the product. A flyer or coupon will only go so far – customers want to know if the product tastes good to them. Our group sales programs to schools; our fundraisers; and our sports sponsorships all involved eating the product at some point. This sampling by the customers, combined with our value proposition of Pizza! Pizza!® created a winning combination.
When I left the convenience industry, I became President of the Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich chain. Not surprisingly, this 2,000-store chain had its marketing built around the same premise – sampling. Built into their daily operations is a sampling program whereby the store operations makes 8 sandwiches; divides into thirds; and delivers samples/menu every morning to 24 businesses that surround their store. Day in and day out, the business community is reminded of the great tasting sandwiches less than a few blocks away.
Food service operators are competing for “share-of-stomach” and the dollars that are spent in the food industry are staggering in comparison to the convenience store industry. Competing against the titans like Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s is futile if you try to outspend them. Where operators can succeed, is developing food service marketing programs that create opportunities to get customers in their immediate trade areas to sample their products on an ongoing basis. This product trial will create the routine for your customers provided that you can deliver a consistent product.