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Marketing Lessons from School Lunch

“If you can successfully promote sloppy joe sandwiches, you can perform marketing for anything!” That was my motto, early in my career, as marketing director for a food service company. We were hired to manage the school district’s food program. The school district could then focus on teaching children.

Chicken nuggets, tater tots and a carton of milk served in a sectional tray, taught me a key marketing lesson: Understand and satisfy your customers in each section.


At first…

…it seemed my job would be easy. Other than trying to reduce the stigma associated with cafeteria food, the only other challenge was to keep my end user customer happy… the diner… the kids. It is a simple equation.

A-P=S
The (A) Audience, minus their (P) Problem = equals (S) Solution/Success.

However, I quickly found out… I didn’t have a single audience… but many. And each needed to be considered with every communication program and marketing promotion.

My audiences are illustrated in my pizza diagram* below. Each slice of USDA-inspected pepperoni represents a different audience I needed to think about, to be considerate of, and include in my marketing equation.

*(forgive the inaccuracy, most school pizza is rectangle as it is cooked on large sheet pans).

Like the cafeteria tray…

…they’re all on the same plate, but divided by different needs.

  • Kids – Our “customer.” While mom and dad may provide money, ultimately the child chooses to buy or not.
  • School Board – My company was under contract with them, they’re our client. Keeping all the other groups happy keeps the board happy. Saving 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, let-go, trained, managed, and recognized their good work.
  • Parents – If the parents are uncomfortable with the food quality and/or get complaints from their child – we’re doing something wrong.
  • Teachers – Teachers themselves get tired of the same lunchroom food. Yet another customers.
  • US Government – Constant oversight and reporting to/from the government ensures quality for the kids.
  • Local Media – A slow news week often leads to a cafeteria pop-in visit to report, “What they are actually serving our town’s youth.”
  • Community – Unless you have kids of your own and join them once in a while in the lunchroom, you probably assume what’s served today is exactly 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 with the resources provided by the company.

What’s more… there’s a tight communication link among these groups.

If one group is upset, news spreads to the rest… quickly.

So the lesson I learned was to always include these ten groups in all of my planning. If we launched a new program… Or re-worked the menu for healthier options… I had to consider how to best reach and communicate this information to a broad and skeptical group.

Quick realization of the simultaneous needs of all your audiences will lead to success.

This lesson has stuck and helped all through my career. So yes, promoting sloppy joes is a recipe for marketing success.

What experiences do you have to share?

This article is re-worked from an article I originally published on the Marketing Profs Daily Fix blog.

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  1. David Locke
    David LockeAugust 24,09

    You left one stakeholder out, the lunch providers of those kids future employers. We eat school lunches to train us to eat workplace cafeteria food. :)

    It’s a lesson, a curriculum, and there should be a test in the “no child left behind program.

    Liking your website. Thanks!

  2. Kouba
    KoubaAugust 25,09

    Are you a professional journalist? You write very well.

  3. Alison @ Femita
    Alison @ FemitaSeptember 14,10

    This is really something to keep in mind. Never give the people who are involved a chance to feel left out. Especially not in times of social media. Can you image how a blog post, tweet or facebook status update from a couple of parents or lunch ladies could harm your brand?

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