Panera Bread knew its Bistro French onion soup was good, but they didn’t know it was good enough to illicit harsh backlash from customers on social media after the soup was eliminated from the menu in Fall 2019 to make way for seasonal items. The soup, which has had a spot on Panera’s menu—and in customers’ hearts and stomachs—for more than 20 years, returned to the menu in January; a decision the company announced before year-end. But to ease customers’ angst, who were still disappointed with the soup’s temporary absence, Panera called on Phyllis Smith, the actress who played Phyllis Vance on NBC’s The Office, to create an online video of her reading customers’ tweets from a desk in Panera’s St. Louis, Missouri, headquarters. It was a move that spun consumers’ unfavorable feedback on social media and helped market its return and strengthen the overall brand. Most importantly, the video let customers know that Panera was not only listening to customers’ requests, but also meeting them.

Smith played the same character as she did in The Office, carrying a motherly, comical tone, and fittingly sporting a pair of slippers that resembled loaves of bread. Reading the customers’ tweets, Smith reacted in an upbeat way. The video culminates with Boo Dutch, Panera’s social media manager, stating emphatically that the soup is, indeed, back on the menu, and to stop sending Panera messages about it. 

Panera’s example of taking a mishap and turning it into an opportunity is a good lesson for all marketers. The company was receiving substantial buzz on social media, but the buzz was largely negative. Instead of carrying on with its menu change, Panera quickly reversed its decision, turned a negative into a positive and proved itself as a customer-facing company that places customers’ wants and needs first.


Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.