Benjamin Li
Aug 20, 2013

Pret A Manger thrives without any advertising expenses

HONG KONG - How does a fast-food eatery survive without advertising, especially in Hong Kong's cutthroat food and beverage industry?

Yumi Li:
Yumi Li: "Pret girl" for over 11 years
One answer might be to follow the path that Pret A Manger, a 27-year-old UK ready-to-eat brand, is blazing. With its outlets in Hong Kong doing a thriving business, the chain is looking forward to expanding into China. What's the secret of the company's success when it doesn't even do a dinner trade, which many of its competitors rely on, and while its rivals spend millions on advertising? Pret A Manger has 250 stores in UK, 50 in the US, six in Paris, 13 in Hong Kong and will be opening its first store in Shanghai in 2014.

Campaign Asia-Pacific talked to Yumi Li (李若藍), commercial director of Pret A Manger Hong Kong, at the brand's store in The Centre recently. Li (pictured) calls herself a “Pret baby” and has worked for Pret A Manger for more than 11 years, starting off as a part-time team member when she was an economics student at University College London.

“I was a regular customer of Pret at its shop on Tottenham Court Road while I was at uni, and I always found the marketing of Pret quite ‘funky and subtle’—funky as a brand and the marketing is quite subtle, as it has always relied on word of mouth."

Li's career literally started from the bottom in the kitcken having to start work early in the morning and making sandwiches for a year. Li had a wish come true when she joined Pret’s marketing team and worked her way up.

Li’s boss moved her to Hong Kong in 2009, as Hong Kong was considered the expanding company’s jewel. Li is originally from Hong Kong and being a native Cantonese speaker was a plus for the job.

Today Li is not only in charge of the food and marketing, but also responsible for the supply chain.

Why the name Pret A Manger?

Pret A Manger used to be the name of a restaurant in Hampstead in London that went bankrupt. When [the founders] started the business, they were given two choices, either select a name from the list of bankrupted companies for just GBP15, or pay GDP300 to 500 to start with a brand new company name.

As most Londoners know a bit of French, Pret A Manger, which means “Ready to eat” in English, translated quite well in the UK.

Does it translate well in Hong Kong?

People here often mistake the name as “Pret a Manager” and they think it is a very posh company catering exclusively to executives and managers. Even though we have been in Hong Kong for 11 years, we still have customers calling us to ask where is the nearest “Pret a manager” shop.

Why did the company choose Hong Kong as its first outpost in Asia?

We opened our first store at the IFC in Hong Kong in 2002 [due to its] strong economy and substantial expat community, and it was a safe bet for UK companies. Nowadays, everyone in the US and in Europe has their eyes focused on China and Shanghai. As to Hong Kong and China, they're both linked, so it makes sense.

Pret A Manger does not do any advertising and marketing? Why is that?

We would never ever do traditional advertising, and prefer to invest our money for making a brilliant in-store experience for our customers—food quality as well as staff welfare. If they are a happy team, they would provide happy services; happy customers, they will come back.

The best advertising of Pret A Manager is our shops. In London as we have tons of shops. They are all like advertising billboards, especially in Central London.

However in Hong Kong, it is quite different as we are still quite small, and we appreciate Hong Kong customers’ behaviours are different from UK customers as well.

What are the main differences between customers in Hong Kong and in the UK?

Hong Kong customers actually focus a lot more on what the media and online forums say. As we are still trying to penetrate to the local market, we recognise the need to use people like LikeLike [the company's PR agency in Hong Kong] to do media relations. We won’t change our strategy, and still do not do TV ads or other advertising.

In the UK, lunch tends to be an individual experience. You go and grab something, go back and eat it at your desk; whereas in Hong Kong and even with some expats who have lived here for a while, lunch time actually is a social event and you go in a group with two, four, eight or even 10 people. In order to tap into the local market, we are building more shops with seating available. This is especially important for us in locations like the Lee Gardens in Causeway Bay, where there is a very large afternoon tea trade for shoppers.

Hong Kong customers are very adventurous and love variety. If we have a new product launch, they are really keen to try something new, and that new product would become the best seller within two to three weeks. However it changes quickly, and they are constantly looking for new things. While in the UK, the customers are more into their regular eating habits. If they like their chicken avocado or club sandwich, it is quite challenging to sway them to try something different. They will still try new products but it would take five to six months to win them over.

Speaking of penetration, Hong Kong people are spoilt with choices for food. Will you adapt a new menu to please local customers’ palettes, like McDonald’s and KFC do?

Indeed we are very lucky, we are spoilt with choice. Regardless of what we do, I think no one would stick to sandwiches every day—it is the eating habit of Hong Kongers.

However, what we are trying hard is if they want sandwiches, something that is light, healthy, high quality and fresh western food that is value for money with great service, they have to consider Pret as their first choice. 

In the old days, local people preferred rice and dim sum, which is the typical lunch we tend to have, but these days more and more people go for a healthier lifestyle and they would come to us as well.

Rents in Hong Kong are notoriously expensive. Yet most of the Pret shops in Hong Kong are in MTR stations and key business districts on Hong Kong island, which are closed in the evening. How does this affect your business without a dinner trade?

I would not say sandwich is appropriate for dinner and we appreciate that. Our core trades are breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, and that is why we open early. Our model works quite well and we aim to serve our customers within 60 seconds once they start queuing up. In general we serve three times more customers than our competitors in term of numbers coming into the stores. For example, at our IFC store, we serve 18,000 customers per week. That number is phenomenal considering that we do not do dinner.

For our shop locations, proximity to offices is the key to capture the breakfast trade, as no matter how delicious the food is, you do not go out of the way for breakfast, hence it is the most sensible decision to have our shops at MTR stations for the take-away business, and we are slowly expanding to café-style shops, depending on the locations.

Food trend, like in fashion industry, changes so often, we are constantly working ahead of the market and constantly going to different countries to look for new food ideas.

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