Mark Palmer, the former marketing director of Pret A Manger and Green & Black’s, talks about the basics behind marketing and looks back at how a 30-minute meeting with Pret founder Julian Metcalfe proved the most useful of his career.

I was fortunate to be asked by MCA to speak at its recent Founders’ Forum event, bringing together some of the founders of the UK’s most exciting F&B formats. There were some incredible entrepreneurs in the room and many were anxious to learn more about how they should go about spending more on marketing as and when their businesses grow. I sensed that there was an implied assumption that, as you get bigger, you need to start doing marketing more like the big guys do. My advice was simple and, I hope, reassuring. Don’t spend any money on marketing until you have perfected everything else. In F&B, customer loyalty is driven by brilliant basics. Customers may be attracted to try you based on an advertising campaign, but it is the quality of your food, value for money, ambience and overall quality of operations that will determine whether they come back.

When I started my marketing career, I was fortunate to spend a few days under the tutelage of Professor Peter Doyle – a resident MBA lecturer at Warwick business school. He taught me something I will never forget – that marketing is about being able to charge people more for your product or service. It was stellar advice and I’ve followed it ever since.

It never ceases to amaze me how little time marketers spend working out how to justify a fair and legitimate premium for their brand. Instead, many are busy fools, spending their entire time working out how much harder they can flog a mediocre or inferior product, seeking to paper over the cracks with expensive advertising, margin-destroying price promotions, dubious loyalty programmes and lazy content on social media. The problem with much of this activity is that it is simply noise that does little to build customer trust or underlying loyalty. It keeps marketing departments very busy, so busy in fact that they have to hire more and more lookalikes to get it all done. It rarely adds shareholder value.

Making the perfect pitch

My first encounter with Pret founder Julian Metcalfe was 17 years ago. I was marketing director at Green & Black’s at the time and was trying to persuade him to sell our organic chocolate bars. I’d been tipped off that he was a fan of the brand but pre-warned by the Pret buying team that he would only accept a Pret-branded solution and that our prices were too expensive.

What followed was one of the most useful 30 minutes of my business career. As forewarned, Julian told me in his trademark animated style that he couldn’t possibly have a chocolate bar in his shops that didn’t have a Pret logo on it. I suggested that his customers would buy more if they knew that the chocolate was made by Green & Black’s, that Pret would benefit from the association with our pioneering ethical business model and that he could charge more for this chocolate bar if we positioned it as a collaboration. He showed signs of buying my pitch. He then moved to pricing and told me in no uncertain terms that ours was unacceptably high. He also wanted the bar that Pret sold to be even better than our regular ones. I told him this would cost more not less. He told me to go away for 48 hours and to work out how to make the bar slightly bigger, the packaging even more stunning and to work out a way of displaying them beautifully in Pret shops and that he would then consider paying my requested price (or maybe even a bit more) if I had made the product even more compelling for his customers.

We met again a few days later. It was an even shorter meeting. I presented some indicative packaging designs, we had a good haggle over whose logo should be biggest, he scribbled down some charming copy describing the joint venture, he signed off the product upgrades and slightly higher pricing and by the end of the meeting, we had agreed to launch in all Pret shops as fast as was humanly possible. For the first time in my supplier side career, I had encountered a buyer (or founder in this case) who had asked for a price increase as reward for making my product better. It reminded me of those wise words that I had learned from Professor Doyle many years before – marketing is about charging people more for your product or service. Giving people reasons to pay a fair premium for your brand over the next person’s brand is what marketing is really all about.

Spending relatively small sums

Almost 10 years later and I got a call from Pret’s CEO asking me to be their marketing director and I am delighted to still be involved today in a part-time advisory capacity. It has been a privilege to play a very small part helping a fantastic business to continue to grow. A business that continues to spend relatively small sums on ‘traditional’ marketing, but places an extraordinary amount of time, effort and investment behind those things that matter most to its customers. Fast, friendly service, freshly prepared good natural food and a lasting society impact via the Pret Foundation Trust – a winning recipe underpinned by consistently attractive, trusted and engaging brand communications.

Having said that, Pret doesn’t worry too much about marketing, it was particularly pleasing that the marketing industry recently voted Pret as its brand of the year – not bad for a brand without an advertising budget, but due recognition for long-term creative excellence led by creative director James Cannell and the incredibly talented and hard-working Pret brand team.

■ Mark Palmer is the former marketing director of Pret A Manger and Green & Black’s chocolate, co-founder of Cawston Press soft drinks and LA Brewery Kombucha and chair of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee