</B> Sodexho jazzes up profile with consumer outreach

Sodexho is one of the largest contract food-service firms, but not many people are aware of its offerings. So now it's looking to change that by touting its retail brands

Sodexho is one of the largest contract food-service firms, but not many people are aware of its offerings. So now it's looking to change that by touting its retail brands

Sodexho's meals feed all segments of the population - in hospitals, schools, corporations, the armed forces, and long-term care facilities. But the corporate brand doesn't have the cachet of mainstream restaurants.

Sodexho's PR team is continually looking to raise the company's profile and position it as a business that is on the pulse of nutrition and food trends. After all, with 6,000 accounts spanning the globe, the company - one of the largest contract food-service operators - is often in the best position to recognize shifts in the way people eat. "From birth to retirement, we touch people's lives," says VP of PR Leslie Aun. "We are more in touch with the American consumer than any other company."

To build its reputation with the mainstream media, the Gaithersburg, MD-based company has sought to position its dieticians and executives as experts on issues ranging from obesity to hunger relief.

But in 2003, Sodexho's senior management decided it was time to go head-to-head with the industry players in the consumer arena.

"We are selling our corporate brand to decision makers who sign contracts," says Steve Brady, SVP of corporate communications.

But to gain recognition among the general-interest press, the company needed a consumer-oriented course of action, he adds. "We want an easily understood strategy."

Benefits of brand recognition

Food-service providers have agreements with many established restaurant chains, and an increasing number have also moved toward launching their own brands. Sodexho's retail brands group, for instance, oversees a stable of 10 unique brands, including Sky Ranch Grill, Sub Connection, and Salsa Rico. But those entities largely operate under the radar, and none has the name recognition of a McDonald's, Subway, or Taco Bell.

The company piloted its consumer-focused strategy with Jazzman's Caf?, its coffeehouse concept and fastest growing brand. The coffeehouse has grown to more than 130 locations and will be opened to franchisees in January.

"It's very unusual that you would have an institutional dining concept branch out into the mainstream," Aun says. "[But] there are a lot of benefits of offering our own unique brands."

Stacy Bowman-Hade, senior PR manager, notes that the company positions Jazzman's as a rival to industry stalwarts like Starbucks. "It really competes head-to-head as we knew it could," she says.

Jazzman's is offered as a full-service caf?, a kiosk, or a portable cart. "We are often competing with the street, as we say," Brady says.

Having recognizable brands makes Sodexho more attractive to clients. Universities, for instance, compete heavily for students; brochures routinely tout a school's nonacademic advantages, such as the quality of food on campus.

"People are very focused on brands each day. This is the have-it-your-way generation," Aun says. "Twenty years ago, you ate whatever slop they put on your plate. You didn't have a choice."

In May 2004, the PR team met its goal of earning a Hot Concepts award from industry trade publication Nation's Restaurant News, and Jazzman's became the first noncommercial brand to receive the accolade.

The PR team hasn't tried to link its retail brands to the corporate brand in the minds of consumers, but that wasn't necessarily the intention.

"When we go to any of our clients ... we can choose the right variety of brands," points out Damon Liever, SVP of the retail brands group. "We've been fairly successful because a lot of things that we've done are different from what our competitors have been doing."

For Sodexho, the branding concept extends beyond just the type of food that it offers. For hospital clients, the company has also launched the "Total Patient Experience," which offers patients room service options similar to what they would find in a hotel.

"The research shows that about 80% of the time spent in the hospital is not receiving medical care," Bowman-Hade says.

She notes that in many cases, patients do have a choice of where they receive treatment, "and [hospitals] realized that we can drive that" by offering a value-add to patients.

PR's other duties

Developing new business is just one component of what the PR team does.

The PR team, which operates with a budget of just under $1 million, is the primary driver of the company's message, and very little is spent on advertising, Liever notes.

Aun points out that the PR team has a direct line to CEO Richard Macedonia, to whom Brady reports. "There's a lot going on - and it's good to know that Sodexho really values the unfiltered advice," she says.

As a former journalist, Aun organizes the five-person PR team much like a newsroom, with each team member responsible for a different "beat" that falls loosely under operations or public affairs. But it's a fluid delineation, and everyone on the PR staff has a hand in what everyone else is doing.

Employee communication is no small part of the PR team's responsibilities. "We view PR as a way to get our story out not only to our clients, but also our employees," says Liever.

Media relations, though, is intimately tied to employee satisfaction. When consumers are happy, clients get the credit, notes Ann Walker Marchant, CEO of Washington, DC-based The Walker Marchant Group, which has worked for three years with Sodexho on project work, media relations, community outreach, and litigation PR.

"The work that they do is often behind-the-scenes work," she says. "There's no brand awareness. People don't have a feel for who Sodexho is."

Press coverage, therefore, is necessary for boosting employee morale, as well as for highlighting the company's contributions to the communities in which it operates, Walker Marchant notes. She points to Sodexho's efforts to position itself as an expert on hunger-relief programs, which are a significant focus of its CSR activities.

"They've started to take a more active role in defining their reputation," Walker Marchant says. "They're extremely responsive in terms of media relations."

The obesity epidemic is one issue on which the company wants to be at the forefront. Last year, the PR team worked with its internal obesity task force to create a campaign around its Your Health Your Way program, which promotes health and wellness in the workplace.

In addition to trade coverage, the campaign earned front-page placement in The Washington Post business section. "We are largely seen as a resource in nutrition," says Tara Baten, senior PR manager. "I think we've done a really good [job] of getting our name out there and saying, 'Here's who we are, and here's what we do.'"

The PR team also tries to stay ahead of other industry issues that could impact clients. When the fair-trade-coffee movement picked up steam on college campuses a few years ago, the PR team was the first to realize the potential business impact. (The fair-trade-coffee movement aims to provide a living wage to coffee farmers, particularly in developing countries.)

"We tend to be the early-warning system for the company," Aun says. "We were on the front lines to say this was an issue, this was a trend. If you're a Sodexho client, you can get fair-trade coffee."

Because of its 120,000 employees, Aun likens Sodexho to a "small city." At any given time, therefore, there are a host of potentially explosive issues.

"That's a lot of news; that's pretty much a story every day," she says.

As in any city, crises are a part of life. At Sodexho, they can range from charges of racial bias to high-profile disputes with unions. Food-borne illnesses are also a reality of working in the food-services industry. In 2003, for instance, 13 people tested positive for E. coli during an outbreak that ultimately killed two people. Bowman-Hade recalls that the crisis effort required close coordination with local health officials to confirm facts, develop messages, and communicate with stakeholders.

"Anything can happen, and often it does," Brady says. "When crises occur, we have a very rapid response system."

"This is a fascinating business," Aun says. "It's just an amazing microcosm of the world we live in."

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PR contacts

SVP of corporate communications Steve Brady

Vice president of PR Leslie Aun

Senior PR managers Tara Baten, Sarah Cody, and Stacy Bowman-Hade

PR manager Bonnie Gordon

PR specialist Greg Yost

Administrative assistant Cori Bragunier

PR agencies The Walker Marchant Group, Burson-Marsteller

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