December 11th, 2013

Brand to Watch: Panera Bread and the Rise of Fast Casuals


Susie Graham

Fast casuals have been a growing sector of the QSR and Casual Dining category for more than a decade now. That growth has exploded over the last three years, with Fast Casuals seeing double digit percentage rises in sales while their QSR and CSR brethren are trying to stay in the low single digits for losses. One of the most interesting aspects of the Fast Casual segment, particularly for us, is the fact that its rapid growth has come nearly entirely from word of mouth and social media and not national television. There are two exceptions, however.

Chipotle, our second ever Brand to Watch, did a high profile spot during the 2012 Grammys as well as an online spot that lives more like a short film than a TV commercial. They have not adopted a “traditional” TV media spend though, leaving themselves more as an outlier than the norm.

Panera Bread, our brand to watch for December, is taking Fast Casual to primetime, with seven spots airing so far in 2013 and more than $28 million in national TV spending according to Competitrack. Not only has Panera burst onto the scene, but they are doing it with skill—their seven ads in 2013 have an average Ace Score of 591, 7.5% higher than the QSR norm. This average is among the top five in the QSR category for 2013, putting Panera on the hunt for QSR Brand of the Year.

What’s Panera’s recipe for success? Storytelling. The brand has taken to telling the story of its food—whether that’s how it is made, where the ingredients come from or where unused food goes after the last customer of the day is served. They pair their stories with unique visuals that show off the food but connect with the voiceover. Similar to Chipotle, Panera focuses on the quality and integrity of the ingredients it uses, which consumers recognize and appreciate.

The top spot of the year for the brand focuses in on its bread making process and how the fresh baked loaves affect all of the food they serve. The Rube Goldberg-esque journey of the fresh baked bread grabbed consumers Attention and showed off all of Panera’s product offerings while letting consumers know that food won’t be wasted at the end of the day.

The combination of images, along with the happy music and voiceover, created an emotional connection for consumers. “Baked Goods” Emotional Sentiment score of 64 is good for second overall in the QSR category for 2013 and is 20% higher than the category norm.

Panera earned many respondents’ respect for their efforts in helping the less fortunate. Many cited the fact that they didn’t know Panera baked their bread daily, on location, nor the fact that excess bread was donated to those in need. It only made the brand more appealing once those consumers found out:

Panera doesn’t just use its charitable side to win consumers’ affections—they know how to launch a new product as well. Their “Rigatoni Pasta Story :30” focuses on the origins of the ingredients in the new dish, whetting consumers appetites and teaching them some history along the way. In fact, the spot is tops in the QSR category for Information in 2013.

Female consumers are particularly enamored with Panera’s ads, scoring them an average of 35 points higher than their male counterparts. This is not entirely unexpected—QSR category ads that focus on healthy offerings or ingredient origins tend to attract higher female approval.

One thing to keep an eye on is the performance of Panera’s :15 spots and how they can improve. While :15 spots aren’t  typically conducive to storytelling, they’ve become an important part of a well-rounded media plan, not too mention a great way to get frequency at a lower cost. Both of the brand’s :15 spots from 2013 fall below the QSR norm. Panera has proven they can succeed with different types of :30 spots, so we expect they’ll find the right mix of ingredients to make :15s sizzle for them in the future.

Panera has rapidly become a textbook example of a Challenger brand getting it right. When media dollars will never match the big players, it is key to get it right, every time, to maximize spend and minimize waste. Focusing on key differentiators helps the brand stick out in the mind of consumers. Fast Casuals overall do a great job of this whether it’s through their unique product offerings, stand out in-store experience or marketing. Panera is setting the bar high with their fresh baked ideas and tasteful execution.


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