The news has almost become stale: About a week ago, it was announced that New York City’s Magnolia Bakery has found a new home in Manila. After over a year of development, the brand will be opening its 18th international branch on August 22 in Bonifacio Global City—its first in Southeast Asia.
Securing Magnolia Bakery’s franchise was the project of Phil Jacobe Ventures’ managing partner Stewart Ong, whose reasons for franchising range from sheer adulation of the brand (“I would go there literally almost every day”) to the pursuit of a good business opportunity.
“I wanted to bring it here because Magnolia Bakery as a brand fits with our culture. We all know that Filipinos have a sweet tooth; we always end our meals with something sweet” said Ong.
That a lot of Filipinos have long been acquainted with the brand adds to the timeliness of the expansion—Magnolia Bakery is familiar enough to court hype but not too familiar so as to dissuade curiosity, or even a bit of mystery. Such is the appeal of international franchises: It provides you an opportunity to finally try out something you’ve always known about.
While most people might know about Magnolia Bakery through its pop culture references—that 30-second scene between Carrie Bradshaw and Miranda Hobbes in “Sex and the City,” that casual name drop by Andy Sachs in “The Devil Wears Prada”—the products are at the root of the brand’s popularity.
What merits discussion here is the fact that Erick Larios and Stewart Ong have decided to slightly tweak the brand’s profile and menu in an effort to better adapt to the Philippine market.
Opening its first branch in August 1996 in Bleecker and 11th streets, Magnolia Bakery is credited with starting the cupcake craze in the US and around the world. Known for their signature cupcake swirl (“It’s trademarked in the United states, so nobody can copy that swirl of ours,” said director of franchise operations Erick Larios), and for introducing a one-of-a-kind version of banana pudding, the opening of a Manila location is anticipated by dessert enthusiasts.
Larios and his team have promised to deliver the same kind of dessert experience with M Bakery. “One of the things that we’re proud about bringing the brand here is making sure that we maintain the same level of quality and integrity of all our products and all of our training methods. It’s why we took our time to open—it’s not just ‘open up, boom, start baking, then leave.’ We did a lot of training, a lot of ingredient testing. When you taste our products, we want you to get the same experience that you would in New York City.”
Regional executive pastry chef Kiran Shetty adds: “We put in a lot of hard work to get to this level, to get as close as possible to what we have in the US.”
It’s a move reflective of any self-respecting enterprise, and the resulting response to such an approach is almost too easy to predict. What kind of customer wouldn’t appreciate having their expectations met? What merits discussion here is the fact that Larios and Ong have decided to slightly tweak the brand’s profile and menu in an effort to better adapt to the Philippine market. Here’s how they did that:
From Magnolia Bakery to M Bakery
Though the change in name might be the most obvious, the logic behind it isn’t as easy to spot and figure out. Asked why the word “Magnolia” was dropped for just a letter M, Ong says: “For Filipinos who may not be familiar with the Magnolia brand, we wanted to be extra prudent that they wouldn’t associate it with other Filipino entities.”
Another reason for the name change comes as part of the team’s marketing strategy. “We felt using a single letter like M would trigger faster memory recall as well as resonate well with Filipino millennials,” said Ong.
M Bakery’s menu virtually has all of the products found in a standard NYC Magnolia Bakery branch: the famous banana pudding, blueberry jamboree, Carrie cupcakes, confetti cupcakes, flower cupcakes, classic ice box cake, Snickers ice box bar, lemon bars, magic cookie bars, and sea salt caramel cookies, among others.
But as part of an effort to “assimilate” to their new neighbors, the team behind M Bakery will be introducing a special product that’s unique to the Manila market. “We’ve been working on it for a while, but it’s a little bit of a secret, so you’re going to have to come to the store to find out what it is,” says Larios.
Tropical banana pudding
Magnolia Bakery is best known as a cupcake store, but it’s their rendition of the banana pudding that’s received the most demand. It’s also the fastest growing product category since the bakery’s 1996 opening. As of now, the company has about 14 flavors of banana pudding, which they rotate once every month. That’s a lot of flavors to choose from, but Larios had no trouble picking the right flavors to sell in Manila.
“We have many flavors created in collaboration with different markets, and we’ve thought about the flavors that will work exceptionally here. We have a mango lime coconut banana pudding—something a bit tropical will work great, especially since you guys have some amazing mango here,” says Larios.
M Bakery pricing
The team swears by the consistency of their products’ taste and quality—but a bit of change has been applied to pricing. The classic cupcakes at M Bakery are P120, while the same cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery in New York is priced at around $3.95 (around P200). A pint of M Bakery’s banana pudding, though, costs roughly the same as that in the US at P375.
“We wanted to make sure we don’t compromise on the quality and ingredients. But we had to balance it to make sure the price is accessible for Filipinos. If we price it too high, not everyone will be able to afford it and try. It’s a good balancing act between quality and affordability,” Ong said in a separate interview.