Panera's marketing head to restaurant industry: Join us in transparency, 'clean food' efforts

Chris Hollander sat down with PRWeek to discuss his focus as chief marketer and why Panera Bread isn't getting enough credit for its actions.

What is your main focus, as CMO? 
Amplifying the good deeds we do and trying to do right by our kids and our families. We have been on a two-decade-long journey looking to have a positive impact on the food system. In 2003, we were the first national restaurant brand to remove antibiotics in chicken. In 2010, we were the first to post caloric content on menu boards. That is just getting mandated now and we were doing it seven years ago. In 2014, we were the first to commit to removing artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors, and flavors. As of January 2017, all our food is completely clean. This is the next step. Along the way a lot of other restaurants have followed suit and joined us. We feel happiest when we see others in the industry do that and attempt to do what we are doing because then you get scale and influence. It is the difference between marketing and making a difference. We want to make a difference.

Panera Bread today announced the launch of a series of new 100% clean, non-carbonated craft beverages made with no artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavors, or colors from artificial sources. What is the marketing strategy?
We are still offering soda, just giving people more options. We are going to be the first national restaurant company to label both calories and added sugar for all these beverages at the point of pour. We have built this platform over the idea of transparency and helping people make informed choices.

We are getting word out starting with our founder, Ron Shaich, talking to business press and national media. We are also doing an ad in the Washington Post on Friday that includes a letter from [Shaich] urging the beverage and restaurant industries to join Panera in its effort to provide increased transparency to guests.

We are not expecting to spend significant budget behind this. We believe earned media alone is going to drive significant word of mouth.

We have also talked to more than 40 registered dieticians and influencers in the wellness space and such organizations as the American Heart Association to make sure we are doing this in the right way. We are also letting our influencer network, bloggers, and third-party advocates talk on our behalf.

How do you work with influencers?
We started developing our influencer network about two years ago. They keep us in check. This is a dialogue. It is not a one-way communication. They help us form and shape where we are going to go. We use them to figure out if a direction is interesting. We wouldn’t have done the clean initiative if we hadn’t talked to them to figure out what is the right way to do it and what are the commitments we should make.

In February, as part of an effort to get word out that we now deliver, we had slippers shaped like bread loaves we sent out to 100 of our super fans who love Panera and have high reach audiences. We said, "Wear these while you wait for your delivery." We got over 600,000 organic impressions from it.

Before Panera, you were at Pepsi for 11 years. Now that you are taking on big soda, how does your previous experience come into play?
I wouldn’t say we are "taking on big soda." I worked with outstanding people at Pepsi. For me, this is a story about us offering real options and information. If people still want to drink Pepsi, it is still there. When I was at Pepsi, we were looking to be a total beverage company. I think Pepsi is still working on that. And they are good partners. These non-carbonated beverages are proprietary, but we are talking to Pepsi about other things we can do together.

Would you say Panera’s marketing strategy is shifting to one that is more provocative?  
We don’t believe we are getting enough credit for some of our actions. We are trying to amplify what we are doing. We believe we have been doing really good things and other people are joining. We want to break through the clutter and make people realize not only what we are doing, but also what we are doing in relation to what others are doing as well, so people can understand the differences. When we say we are 100% clean, clean is one of those words people are starting to use in a lot of different ways. There is a difference between an item being rid of one artificial preservative and what we think is a much higher bar, which is what we did having zero artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors, and flavors. We need to be more breakthrough, provocative, and memorable in our marketing efforts to make sure people understand these differences.

Chipotle CEO Steve Ells recently accused Panera of misleading customers with claims of "clean" food. How are you responding to this?
Our founder will be talking to the press. Chipotle also said they are following our lead in driving this clean initiative. We couldn’t be happier. We want restaurants like Chipotle to follow our lead. [Shaich] is scheduled to talk to the press about our latest launch. I am sure he will be addressing [Ells] comments as part of it.  

What PR agencies does Panera work with?
Sloane & Company for business PR, Weber Shandwick for consumer PR, and Anomaly is our creative agency.

How many people handle marketing at Panera?
Roughly 65 people.

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