What Sandwiches Tell Us About Marketing

This week, Oliver Truman looks at a purchase decision many of us take every day, and how this reveals the fine line involved in getting marketing right.

Let’s talk sandwiches. It’s a topic that’s been broached a few times on the B2B Blog, and is a mainstay of British conversational repertoire. It’s also a subject that never ceases to provide insight onto the challenges facing your average marketer. A quick Porter’s Five Forces analysis of “the sandwich market” tells us that rivalry is intensely fierce because:

  • Buyer Power Is High – Consumers are rarely stuck for choice as to where they can get one. People tend to be quite sensitive to the price of sandwiches, such is the routine with which they’re bought.
  • Threat Of Substitutes Is High – It’s not too much of a stretch to bring your own Tupperware-entombed chow to the office. In pressing economic times like these, leftovers from yesterday’s dinner can be a frugal, yet hearty alternative. Moreover, there’s often little to prevent defection from one retailer to another.
  • Supplier Power Is Low – The flipside of high buyer power, and the abundance of lunchtime options open to your average punter, mean that sales are often fragmented between many players. Suppliers have little latitude to charge a premium, lest they price themselves out of the market.
  • Barriers To Entry Are Low – Premises and other overheads aside, making sandwiches isn’t the most difficult of tasks. Nor is substantial capital investment required to put something edible between two pieces of bread.

In some ways, my own buying behaviour bears out the above characterisation. Of a lunchtime, I like to maintain a balanced portfolio of sandwich suppliers, assiduously rotating them over the course of a week. Bramhall (home of B2B’s HQ) is blessed with a range of stores selling sandwiches (and other lunchtime fare), from retail behemoths like Tesco, through to quite a few independent delis.

The sandwich retailers’ response to this kind of promiscuity is typically to rely on the reliable crutches of the 4Ps in order to win business:

  • Price: “Meal deals”, where several items can be chosen for a set price are a common strategy for getting people through the door. Even taking into account the price of a sandwich alone, this usually gravitates to a fairly-steady £2-3, at South Manchester prices (only tending to be more if you’re being really fancy).
  • Place: Increasing numbers of retailers now offer the option of delivering sandwiches to the workplace, thus removing one of the few remaining excuses for unshackling one’s self from the office desk.
  • Product: Tastes in sandwiches on these shores tend to be pretty staid. There are, however, signs of this entrenchment changing. Only the other day, the chap from the local deli asked my colleague Matthew if he could get his hands on the canteen menu from our office in the States. This, avid readers of the B2B Blog will remember, is an outlet offering around 9,600 unique combinations of sandwich. News clearly travels fast in the world of sandwich retailing.

Taking the final P – promotion – My sandwich antennae were recently drawn to an advert that’s cropped up outside the local petrol station forecourt. It was promoting the range of snacks that can be bought there – all of which are available under a “meal deal” promotion.

You have to admit that the brief of trying to promote a petrol station’s sandwiches to anyone other than fuel customers is a tough sell. Petrol and service station sandwiches are about as revered as the standard of catering found in most NHS hospitals, or at the zenith of British Rail. In short, there’s a credibility gap to be made up. Even so, someone’s had a go.

The advert I mentioned is worth further scrutiny, though. While it’s laudable that the oil majors are seeking to diversify into the Panini Pound, the execution of this campaign is so crass that I felt moved to include it below (click on the image to enlarge):

I should perhaps first draw your attention to the strapline – “Inspired by farmers’ markets”. With a claim like this, I bet you’re wondering what exactly it is that your local garage is selling nowadays – Homemade chutneys? Free range eggs? Organically reared pork and leek sausages? All sounds rather appealing…

Except it’s not quite these sorts of things. How about a 500ml bottle of Coca Cola? Or a Grab Bag of Walkers Salt and Vinegar crisps? Somehow, I can’t see these items being laid out on canopied trestle tables on the village green any time soon. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I’m also guessing that these goods won’t also be presented to me in a rustically-adorned wicker basket.

Quite aside from the absurdity of the products involved, the message also seems to be that the mere process of selecting three items of your choice (a pre-packed sandwich, a bag of crisps and a carbonated drink) is somehow highly evocative of folksy, rural life. That’s besides the fact that the concept of “pick your own” has more to do with picking berries than it does buying farm produce at market.

All of this got me thinking – would I ever fall prey to the wiles of the marketer so easily? I was certain my answer was “no” until I returned home yesterday evening. Upon entering the kitchen, I saw several cans of Heinz “Farmer’s Market” soup on the side, which I’d bought only a few days earlier. I’d been had. There really was no sense in which this soup was any more a genuine slice of rural life than buying your lunch from a petrol station.

And all of this shows the difficulty of getting marketing right. There’s often a very fine line between good and bad implementation of an idea – both the oil company and the soup manufacturer started from the same premise – but only the latter had implemented the idea credibly.

The notion of credibility in a market is important. In launching any new product or service, companies must first establish whether their brand is well-placed to meet expectations. Even with the best product in the world, if you’re not seen as being a plausible choice, there’s a high chance of failure. For the record, the petrol station won’t be going on my roster of lunchtime venues any time soon.

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