Marketing Lessons from School Lunch

 In Be The Leader, Create Community, Marketing Plan

“If you can successfully promote sloppy joe sandwiches you can successfully promote anything!” That was my motto, back when I was the marketing director for a food service company. We were hired to manage the school district’s food program so that the school district could focus on teaching children.

During my time managing chicken nuggets, tater tots and cartons of milk, I learned that to be a successful marketer, you need to understand and satisfy your customers. All of them.

At first…

…it seemed my job would be easy. Other than trying to reverse the stigmas of cafeteria food, I thought my only challenge was to keep my customer (the kids) happy. How hard could it be, really?

Many of us perceive marketing challenges this way, as a simple arithmetic equation: A – P = S. Or, The Audience (A) minus their Problem (P) equals a Solution (S).

The reality is, however, that we all have multiple audiences. And all of our audiences need to be considered with each program or project we approach.

Like the cafeteria tray…

…all of our customers are on the same plate, but divided into different compartments by their needs.

With regard to the school lunches, my customers were as follows:

  • Kids – Our “Customer.” While mom and dad give their kids money for lunch, the child ultimately chooses to buy or not.
  • School Board – We’re under contract with them and they’re our client. Keeping all the other groups happy keeps the school board happy. Saving them money makes them even happier.
  • School Principal – The boss of the school. They have to manage complaints from kids, parents and teachers. They report to the school board.
  • Cafeteria Team  (i.e. “lunch ladies”) – The front line workers. They make it all happen. While the school district employed them, we hired them, fired them, managed and rewarded them.
  • Parents – If the parents are uncomfortable and / or get complaints from their children – we’re doing something wrong.
  • Teachers – Teachers are customers too, as they can grow tired of the same old lunchroom food.
  • US Government – Constant oversight and reporting to / from the government to ensure quality for the kids.
  • Local Media – A slow news week often leads to a pop-in visit to report “what they’re really serving in the school cafeteria.”
  • Community – Unless you have kids of your own and join them in the lunchroom, you probably assume that what’s served today is the same as what was served when you were in school. As does the rest of the community.
  • My Employer – Of course, I needed to keep my boss happy and manage the resources provided by my company.

What’s more… there’s a tight communication link among these groups. If one group is upset, news spreads to the rest, and quickly.

So, the lesson learned was to always include these ten groups in my marketing planning. If we launched a new program or re-worked a menu, I had to consider out to best communicate this information to a broad and skeptical group. This lesson has stuck and helped me throughout my career as a marketer.

So yes, promoting sloppy joes is a recipe for marketing success. Who knew?

What marketing lessons do you have to share?

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