A great deal of emphasis is given to creating great customer experiences today. Marketers recognize that total consumption experiences influence satisfaction judgments. Also, a focus on delivering an exceptional experience can differentiate a brand from competition. But, there can be another reason for building a remarkable customer experience: Compassion for the less fortunate. That is what Panera Bread has done with a concept called Panera Cares Community Café.
Panera Bread can attribute much of its success to the experience created daily in its more than 1,500 locations. And, like many respected organizations, Panera Bread takes on social responsibility obligations as a way to give back to the communities the company serves. The Panera Cares Community Café is an innovative approach to aligning company values with social responsibilities. The company operates four of these “pay-as-you-can” restaurants. Menus feature suggested prices, and donation boxes are set up to collect money to allow customers to provide funds to help buy a meal for someone who cannot afford to pay. People can pay suggested price, less if they cannot afford the full amount, or volunteer for one hour to eat for free. Panera Bread just opened the fourth café, in Chicago. It should be noted that the other three locations in the St. Louis, Detroit, and Portland areas each has been profitable.
As unique as the Panera Cares Community Café concept is, what really struck me as remarkable was the CEO’s perspective on why these locations are important. Ron Shaich, who is the company’s founder as well as CEO, wanted to give less fortunate people a good dining experience. He contrasts eating at Panera Bread to receiving a meal at a soup kitchen. He calls that experience as “institutional” and giving off negative energy. Shaich believes the less fortunate should be able to enjoy the same experience that anyone else dining at Panera Bread has.
Creating great customer experiences is a priority for marketers. Panera Bread has taken experiential marketing to another level, incorporating experiences into its strategic philanthropy. Donations of money and human resources are admirable, but creating experiences that touch others who are not in your target market demonstrates more than social responsibility. Showing compassion for your fellow man meets what is perhaps the ultimate social responsibility.