I was nervous the first time I went to a Marcel’s Frozen Yoghurt. I was 19 and on a very important ‘official’ first date. I was convinced I was going to have to suffer through a cup of sour-tasting vanilla ice cream and would have to try my best to pretend to like it.
As it turned out, I ended up liking Marcel’s a lot more than the guy who first took me there. Nicole Westvig, managing director of Marcel’s, says my experience is exactly how the brand has managed to convert so many sceptics since it first introduced the concept of frozen yoghurt to South Africans over three decades ago.
“The Marcel’s brand is about more than just frozen yoghurt,” she says. “What makes us special is that we really focus on flavour and the emotional connections people have with different flavours. For most people their engagement with the Marcel’s brand is linked to a special memory.”
From Stellenbosch to foreign shores
Marcel’s opened its first store in Stellenbosch in 1989. Its footprint has since grown to 24 retail outlets in South Africa, in addition to stores in Saudi Arabia and Botswana. The company also has a national distribution network through which it supplies a range of packaged products to retailers such as Spar and Pick n Pay in South Africa and several other African markets. Westvig says the company has conducted successful trials in Asia and Europe, and hopes to start selling its products in these markets in the near future.
Despite its extraordinary progress, Westvig says Marcel’s never had an aggressive expansion strategy; its growth was organic. “Our franchisees were always customers who approached us because they bought into the brand. Today, several of our franchisees own more than one store, and have owned them for many years.”
She says it is only over the past few years that Marcel’s has started to focus on leveraging its franchising model, adding that care has been taken to ensure that its warm and inclusive brand culture remains intact even as it expands. “Our brand culture starts with our franchisees, and they need to understand the Marcel’s production process and why we do what we do.”
The Marcel’s production process is at the core of creating a product that uses only natural ingredients and is infused with probiotics. Westvig admits that this commitment to using natural ingredients and continuing to use live cultures has sometimes been difficult to maintain, but she believes this aspect has been crucial to the success and longevity of Marcel’s. “We offer customers a product that not only tastes good, but also has health benefits.”
This also means that instead of exporting frozen products to international markets, Marcel’s has worked to facilitate local production in those markets. “We deliver fresh products to our stores twice every week,” says Westvig. “The yoghurt our customers eat in-store was fresh, raw milk just days before.”
Marcel’s also refused to change its production method even as it had to compete with a high number of aggressive new entrants into the frozen yoghurt market in recent years. These newcomers saw Marcel’s having to compete even harder for consumer spend during ‘Sunday afternoon outings’. Despite the initial hype, however, very few of those competitors are still in business today.
Westvig says many of these newcomers did great damage to frozen yoghurt as a product category. “Many of them used artificial flavours and mixed powders – and for many people, these products were their first introduction to frozen yoghurt. They tried it once, and didn’t like it.”
In contrast, Marcel’s has continued to expand and improve its range of flavours, adding trendy and sometimes unexpected new flavours such as milk tart, creme soda, popcorn and even pumpkin pie to its fridges. “So much thought goes into every new flavour, and because we only use natural ingredients a new flavour can take months to develop.”
Westvig says that while the inspiration for new flavours sometimes come from international trends, the Marcel’s team also takes into account suggestions and feedback from franchisees, customers and even those made on its social media platforms. She says that although Marcel’s has had great success in introducing new flavours, South African consumers still love the classics: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and English toffee. These flavours are always available at Marcel’s, while newcomers are rotated. “We develop a marketing campaign around each new flavour and engage with our customers to see whether they like it and want it to stay in our stores.”
In addition to focusing on flavour, Marcel’s has also stuck to its model of serving customers from behind the counter even when newcomer competitors drew attention with self-service store formats. Westvig says the company took this decision because of its emphasis on the customer experience. She adds that franchisees undergo training to ensure that each Marcel’s store maintains the necessary level of service. “We make sure they receive a lot of support. If we find that a franchisee is struggling, we send someone from our corporate stores to assist them. No one stands alone.”
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Brought to you by Nedbank Franchising.