Dear Panera Marketing…

After a long drought of posts here (but many on I Will Teach You To Be Rich and Inside Facebook), I’m trying out a new series: Dear ______ Marketing, alternately a love note or a chain letter to brand marketing teams.

Today, it’s Panera, and this one’s a long time coming.

I typically hate chain-y restaurants like this, but not so with  Panera.

Dear Panera Marketing,

First off, congratulations. You have clearly done the research to understand your customers’ needs. Your ideal customers are:

  • in a hurry
  • craving the convenience of fast food, but too college-educated, guilty, and socioeconomically advantaged to let themselves have it
  • happy to drop a few extra dollars for a sandwich with the word “Asiago” in the name

In short, they’re me. Above-average-income professionals who are sensitive to time above all, then quality, then price.

The highlights of my 5-minute customer experience today:

  • 2 minutes to get through 8 people in line ahead of me.
  • 3 minutes to get my sandwich, which doesn’t taste like ‘fast food.’
  • During this time, one customer was greeted by a store employee by name. “Hey Laura!” just like they were friends. No sense of social awkwardness. A real conversation ensued.
  • For customers waiting in line, free samples of seemingly gourmet cookie pieces, just like at my other favorite food chain, Whole Foods. Doesn’t matter that $2 for a cookie is pocket change for your ideal customer, free is just so delightful.

Last week, I squatted in your spacious outlet at 4th and King in San Francisco for a full 4 hours, using your reliable, free wifi and nursing a $1.50 tea that a business acquaintance had bought me. I forgot my wallet at home that day, but was never made to feel uncomfortable and was offered varying free samples of pastries and food a total of 4 times by friendly, smiling female staff members. I accepted every offer.

Every local cafe within 1 mile of your store should be quivering. Despite my strong locavore values, I’m starting to choose you over the local, organic competition. It’s just so convenient! And we humans are just so lazy.

It was my dream cafeteria. Comfortable, private bench seating, no crowds, middle-of-the-road food.

Why am I writing this to you, dear marketing team, and not to the management at your 4th and King branch? Because I know that each facet of my experience has been carefully researched, crafted, and optimized so that (relatively) rich, lifestyle-oriented customers like me will choose you over Whole Foods, Starbucks, Subway, Peet’s, and our local cafe.

Let me count the ways of your highly targeted messaging:

  1. Calorie info, labeled “nutrition”
  2. Use of the word “artisan”
  3. Use of the word “passion,” as in “See where our passion comes from”
  4. Use of “bakery” and “oasis,” as in “Our bakery-cafes are an everyday oasis.”
  5. “Comfortable, friendly, fashionable,” your own words to describe how you want me to view your stores.
  6. “Natural” meats — we (your target customers) all know this is supposed to be better than industrial meats. While it’s not exactly clear what “natural” means in the context of your chains, such label-dropping is still vaguely comforting to a lapsed Michael Pollan-ite like me.

What can other businesses learn from your execution?

1. Research, research, research. Know thy customer. Know her worries (time, calories, a vague concept of sustainability), know her limits, know her job and income. And, know her name.

2. The second lesson here has to do with implementation. Each staff member’s role was carefully orchestrated, from cashier to line prep to store manager. Each person seemed intelligent, alert, and highly efficient — well-trained, machine-like, character-less and utterly inoffensive. Sandwiches were accurate and timed to the minute. This is what you have over the local cafe and even the Whole Foods of the world, where employees showcase bright personalities and unique minds, in the wrong setting.

3. Extreme customer service — every customer counts. From their company page (an unapologetic, yet still convincing, mix of fact and fluff):

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Panera Bread scored the highest level of customer loyalty among quick-casual restaurants, according to research conducted by TNS Intersearch. For the eight consecutive year, customers rated Panera Bread tops among chain restaurants in the 2009 Sandleman & Associates Quick-Track® “Awards of Excellence.” Additionally, Zagat named Panera Bread Most Popular and No. 1 for Best Facilities, Best Healthy Options and Best Salads (for chain restaurants with less than 5,000 outlets) in 2009. Recently, Panera Bread was named to BusinessWeek’s 2010 list of top 25 “Customer Service Champs,” and has also won Awards and Recognition in nearly every market across states.

4. Tradition plus ambition. Finally, the company’s trademarked mission statement is “A loaf of bread in every arm.” This simple phrase tells a great story — and simultaneously evokes tradition (a loaf of bread) and ambition (in every arm). It also shows that Panera’s humble bakery origins, while quaint, were probably not enough to bring the company to its current place on the NASDAQ. Panera’s marketing strategy has clearly been “capture the niche and expand the demand.” Rinse and repeat.

Today I almost missed my train to get one of your sandwiches. And, as expected, the sandwich was just ok. No matter, my expectations were already exceeded by my perfectly controlled and honed customer experience long before I took my first bite — and for your business, the experience is what matters.

5 Comments on “Dear Panera Marketing…”

  1. Wow, cool share, thanks Andrew. I first met Panera in the south, too, though back then I thought it was just another one of those regional things, the (way) fancied up version of Bojangles for richer 30-somethings.

  2. Loved this. extremely insightful. The Panera Roast Beef definitely had me at “Asiago”.

  3. My oh my you sure have a knack for paying attention to the details.

    Now I’m hungry…..and I’m going to make a point to eat lunch today at Panera bread -just to get a whiff of this genius bread marketing.

    Johnny Hempen

  4. Wow, you’re spot on. It’s already been 5 years since you wrote this but I feel exactly the same way about Panera. Years ago, I thought Panera was overpriced and bland. Today in my early 30’s, I go to Panera so I’m not at Starbucks, healthy options and for peace and quiet.

    This nails it: “Comfortable, private bench seating, no crowds, middle-of-the-road food.”

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