Why Pret's coffee giveaway leaves a bad taste

Pret's new 'loyalty' scheme, which allows staff to give free coffee to people they 'like' leaves Ben Stephens, executive chairman at Stack, feeling a bit flat (white).

Pret stores are offering what is being hailed as 'free flirt whites'
Pret stores are offering what is being hailed as 'free flirt whites'

Pret A Manger has caused quite the storm in a coffee cup. The chain is facing flak regarding its policy of encouraging staff to give away free coffee to customers they "like" or "fancy". Pret's boss, the chief executive Clive Schlee, says that this approach is cheaper than a loyalty scheme, but critics argue it is potentially discriminatory and, now that the policy has been revealed in public, risks looking inauthentic.

Free flirt white

Schlee says that his free flirt white giveaway isn’t a direct alternative to a loyalty scheme but works mainly as a piece of staff motivation. He doesn’t even position the gifts as a reward for frequent managers, saying instead that staff can use their discretion to give away a "certain number of hot drinks and food each week".

Rather than provide handouts for good-looking people, Pret could invest in this approach and bring longer-term brand benefits as opposed to the risks involved with a haphazard favouring of one customer over another

Less than exhaustive research among Pret staff (I have just been in and asked), reveals a slightly different story. It sounds to me like they’ve been freshly briefed since Schlee’s comments were published, because they say they use the giveaway to thank regulars, people who are nice to them and people who buy lots. Sounds like a loyalty drive, of sorts, to me.

Worth the money

However, the CEO says he doesn’t want a complicated "Clubcard-style" points scheme because it costs money. He doesn’t have to have one. But, for the money, I’d argue, you get results. Especially when Schlee has ambitions to play in the big league and match the scale of McDonald’s.

He might want to look at how My Starbucks Rewards, based around a plastic loyalty card and mobile app, is doing in terms of making payment easier, encouraging the trial of new products, and rewarding specific groups of customers who deserve a big hug. Three simple but powerful services that I’m sure Pret wouldn’t mind being able to deliver. In the food chain sector, Nando’s is reaping great benefits from its revamped loyalty scheme, based around its Nando’s card and related website.

Creativity, data and technology

However, if that’s just too technical and costly then Pret could do worse than look at what Café Nero is achieving with its loyalty stamp card (a free coffee for every nine you buy). It’s enough to make me walk past Starbucks on my way into work every morning and is certainly more targeted than the Pret approach.

Café Nero’s is a rare exception, though, to today’s successful loyalty schemes, which tend to deploy a consistent blend of creativity, data and technology. Rather than provide handouts for good-looking people, Pret could invest in this approach and bring longer-term brand benefits as opposed to the risks involved with a haphazard favouring of one customer over another. As it stands, Pret risks a backlash from the 72% of us who don’t get the free stuff and significant damage to its brand.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).

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