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Panera Takes its Meal of Responsibility Back to the Drawing Board

Back in April 2013 I wrote about Panera Bread Company’s groundbreaking Meal of Responsibility, a nutritious bowl of turkey chili with 850 calories that invited people to pay for it what they could afford. Last week the company reported that they’ve pulled the menu item and are retooling it.

At the time I wrote
“Here’s my problem: helping out can be very intoxicating, especially when you’re good at it, as Panera is. But as I often say in this space, generous people are no good to causes if they give until they’re broke. Cause marketers need sponsors that are cash cows. That is, companies that have a sustainable business model that can be ‘milked’ regularly.

Before Panera, everybody’s poster-child for progressive corporate social responsibility was Timberland, the shoe and apparel company.

But after riding high through much of the 1980s and 1990s, Timberland’s product line grew a little stale in the double-aughts. Growth stalled. Facing rising material costs and lower profit margins, Timberland sold itself to VF in 2011 for $2 billion.    

Cause marketing and corporate social responsibility provide a kind of insurance effect to companies that practice it. But it’s not the kind of insurance that writes companies a check after a bad year or two.”
The idea of the Meal of Responsibility was that the poor could pay little and the more affluent could pay more. It was an extension of the five Panera Cares Cafes that have a pay-what-you-can model across the entire menu. The suggested price was $6. The menu item was available only at 48 Panera stores in the St. Louis area, where the company is headquartered.

During the test phase Panera served 15,000 of the meals, but few needy people participated because the St. Louis Panera locations are mainly in middle-class and affluent areas.

Moreover, says Ron Shaich, Panera’s founder, the marketing wasn’t up to snuff. “We were very capable of raising the level of awareness about food security in short spurts,” Shaich told the Associated Press, but employees stopped explaining the concept to customers as the in-store marketing changed. “It seemed to fall into the background,” Shaich said. “We decided the best thing to do was pull it and retool it.”

The Meal of Responsibility will return to Panera in the winter as a seasonal offering.

I think there’s a lesson to be learned here, namely the power of testing your cause marketing ideas with actual customers in real-life situations to see how they…and you…respond. The tech industry calls it “validated learning,” a phrase coined by Eric Ries, the author of the book “The Lean Startup.”

Panera didn’t fail with the Meal of Responsibility, at least not yet.

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