Inside Panera's viral French onion soup video

The video has been viewed more than 10.8 million times across platforms.

Image via Panera
Image via Panera

Company: Panera Bread
Campaign: French Onion Soup Fallout
Agency partners: Coolfire Studios (filming), Anomaly (production), Unreasonable Studies (video editing), Sloane PR (PR), Zeno Group (creative)
Duration: January 8, 2020

When Panera Bread removed French onion soup from the menu last fall to make room for its autumnal offerings, the response from customers was intense.

"Something about the removal really struck a nerve," said Chris Hollander, SVP of marketing at Panera.

On social media, the "comments spanned the gamut from passionate to funny to colorful, for lack of a better word," he said. 

The fast-casual chain always planned to bring the soup back in January. To highlight its return, the company hired Phyllis Smith, who played Phyllis in the TV show The Office, to read mean customer comments from a desk at Panera’s headquarters. 

Panera is constantly updating its menu, switching seasonal offerings in and out. Whenever there is a change, it hears from consumers. But the outpouring of sentiment following the removal of the French onion soup was unusual. 

"Given this response, we thought, ‘We have an opportunity here,’" Hollander said.

In November, Panera’s prep, PR, and digital teams brainstormed how the company could use these emotions to create a buzzy campaign that would launch in January, when the soup was slated to make a comeback. 

At first, the team toyed with having a social media coordinator read the tweets, which were "funny in themselves," Hollander said. Liking the idea but wanting to increase the spot’s ability to penetrate the cultural conversation, someone suggested that Smith, a St. Louis, Missouri, native (where Panera is headquartered) should read the comments instead.

"There was a synergy there," Hollander said. 

Panera filmed a short video featuring Smith less than a month after the initial brainstorming session.

"This was not a typical campaign length, but the idea was fairly simple and so we were able to turn it around really quickly," Hollander said. 

Filming took place in mid-December, shortly before the holiday break. In the video, Smith reads customer tweets, such as, "Panera Bread: Bring back French onion soup, you cowards."

At the end of the segment, she shows off her Panera Bread loafers, leftover from a campaign the brand did with influencers a few years back.

The video was released on January 8, publishing across Panera’s social channels, where it received paid support. Prior to launch, Panera reached out to trade publications with an embargo; directly after, it pitched general interest outlets. 

The video has been viewed more than 10.8 million times across platforms, making it "the most viewed in-feed social video in recent years" for the brand, Hollander said.

On Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the video was viewed 5.5 million, 4.2 million, and 792,000 times, respectively. It received an additional 115,000 views on YouTube. 

On Instagram, the video was shared nearly 8,000 times, earning it the title of Panera’s most-shared Instagram video of all time. On Facebook, it racked up 41,500 comments and 26,600 shares. 

The campaign generated more than 40 earned media placements, including write ups by Fox Business and QSR Magazine.

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