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The Product: It Is What It Is---Or Is It?

It goes without saying that any marketing plan must begin with the product (or service) you are trying to sell or promote.

As the first "P" in the marketing mix, the characteristics of your primary product—its look, feel, positioning, benefits, packaging, quality and many other attributes—all have to do with its market and marketability.

From a customer's point of view, a product is only desirable if it offers benefits that fulfill a need that customer has or thinks he or she has. So any real discussion of marketing, while beginning with the physical product or service, quickly focuses on the needs that it fulfills

So what is the product offered by the average FSD? Breakfast in the company cafeteria? Patient meals? Board plans? School lunches? Convenience foods and snacks? Catering?

The answer, of course, is that it depends on the customer. For the parent of a college student, the product is a value-priced meal plan or meal service that will keep that student nourished and not cause him or her to instead consume large amounts of fast or junk food.

One's product is the whole set of experiences, benefits and value that customers perceive themselves as getting from your cafés, department or programs.

An administrator at that college shares that objective, but would usually also want the program to build a sense of community among the student and his or her colleagues while generating extra cash flow to help pay off housing bonds or support the general fund.

The student is looking for taste, variety, entertainment, comfort and convenience, and, very often, retail style service that compares favorably to whatever local restaurants he or she favors. All of the things the typical restaurant-goer looks for.

Finally, what about your existing or future staff? They are customers, too, although internal ones, and want a pleasant working environment, better pay, more job satisfaction, convenient hours and other job or career-related benefits.

You can work this same exercise with similar results for virtually every segment and every operation in FOOD MANAGEMENT's circulation. My point is, the product that our readers seek to sell is not as static or definable as one at first thinks. It is never simply baguette sandwiches, or catering services or the grab-and-go snacks at a c-store.

In the larger sense, one's product is comprised of the whole set of experiences, benefits and value that your existing and potential customers perceive themselves as getting from your cafés, department or programs.

Marketing-oriented managers evaluate this product mix in terms of its depth, breadth, and commonalities. They look to develop control over the mix so that it supports their business objectives: sales, profits, participation, growth, customer satisfaction, and so on.

So to say that one intends to market one's product really entails a program that targets a whole range of customers, communicating and positioning an even wider range of perceived benefits via an integrated and coordinated program.

Suddenly, the idea of marketing is a lot more complex than it seems at first.

Marketing managers use tools and concepts to bring order to this process. They segment the customer base, identifying particular needs and wants; they categorize particular products into lines, positioning and branding those lines to appeal to the target customer segments; they evaluate the competition, and use that information to position their own product(s) more effectively; they put resources into new product development to fine-tune product quality, develop new applications or services, help them expand their markets, and so on.

In foodservice, two other areas also require extraordinary attention: presentation and people. The way product is merchandised, garnished, presented and packaged—its presentation to the customer—is often critical to the way it is perceived. And since this is a service business, delivered in most cases by individual people, their skill, demeanor, professionalism and "connectedness" while doing so become an essential part of the product itself.

As we said last month, the Product as we've discussed it here is only one of the four "P's" of the marketing mix. Good marketers adjust and manipulate all four of them so the product is seen by the customer as the best of its kind, well-matched to his or her expectations and needs and delivered when, where and at a price he or she finds fair and reasonable.

But, getting back to the first "P," this process all begins with a firm understanding of the core products (or services) that your department delivers. That delivery— Place—is the second "P" and the subject we'll look at next month.

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