If a brand hopes to breakthrough the cluttered marketplace, a sense of authenticity and community needs to be a cornerstone of their brand equity. Consumers want to develop a relationship with a brand and in many cases, they are looking for brands that could become a physical manifestation of a Third Place. The concept of a “Third Place” refers to a place, other than work or home, where a person can go to relax and feel part of the community. I first came across this formal definition while doing a project at P&G’s so-called “Mosh Pit of Creativity”, Clay Street. It was also at Clay Street that I realized Potbelly Sandwich Works is a Third Place for me.
For those of you not familiar with Potbelly, it is a Chicago tradition and one of my favorite brands in the marketplace (you can guarantee I will be visiting one while I am in Chicago this month). The chain was started in 1971 not as a sandwhich shop, but as an antiques shop in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. The owners sold sandwiches on the side to draw in shoppers but quickly realized they were selling more sandwiches than antiques. The chain was purchased in the mid-1990’s by a young entrepreneur intent on turning it into something more and it has received VC funding from Howard Schultz’s Maveron.
I first discovered Potbelly when I was interning at Fresh Tracks Music, just a few doors down from the original Lincoln Park Potbelly store. It was love at first bite and I’ve been a champion of the store ever since. It really isnt a surprise since anyone that knows me will attest that I am sucker for 1.) Great food, and 2,) An authentic experience (sometimes called hole in the wall restaurants). Potbelly delivers on both these things. First off, each store layout is unique and plays off the character of the neighborhood. It honestly feels like each store is independent and an authentic one of a kind. Second, the stores have a comfortable vibe. During the lunch hour rush, you will find local musicians playing live music (often on a stage up near the ceiling) and the workers behind the counter shouting out orders. You walk in and have this feeling that just doesnt come across with competitors like Quizno’s or Subway. It is funny to write, but Potbelly feels like Cheers where everyone knows your name. In many ways, Potbelly purposely works to develop this type of feeling. I was just reading on another blog an interview with Andy Sernovitz about how when Potbelly opened their store in Austin, TX, they “rented a mailing list of folks who had moved from Chicago to Austin, and sent them a letter saying, “Hey, do you miss us? We’d like to buy a sandwich for you and all your friends. Here’s a stack of coupons for your friends. Take then to the new Potbelly in Austin.” Now that is pretty damn cool.
The challenge is going to be for Potbelly to maintain this feeling as they expand across the country but with stunts like their Austin coupons, they are going to do just fine at it. When I visited their first shop in Cincinnati in 2006, the vibe was still there despite being located in an outdoor shopping mall. Likewise, the same feeling was at their store on the University of Cincinnati’s campus in Clifton (the same store that became our Third Place at Clay Street). Potbelly knows the importance of an authentic experience and creating at atmosphere that customers want to talk about. It is a lesson that many brands could learn from if they want to play in the Experience Economy.