Mike Fromowitz
Aug 23, 2012

Little stories that offer big lessons

Millions of people on Facebook are hungry for a feel-good story, and ready to praise any brand that delivers it. The web, it seems to me, is bereft of feel-good stories that even the smallest, ...

Little stories that offer big lessons

Millions of people on Facebook are hungry for a feel-good story, and ready to praise any brand that delivers it. The web, it seems to me, is bereft of feel-good stories that even the smallest, most random act of kindness can turn into something that's celebrated across the web.

Case in point: this heart-warming story which is now zooming around the Internet. It involves a young man, his dying grandmother, and a bowl of clam chowder from Panera Bread, a chain of bakery-cafes in North America.

This little story offers big lessons about brands, service and the human side of business. The story underscores why efficiency should never come at the expense of humanity.

The story, as told in AdWeek by Tim Nudd, goes like this:

A 21-year-old college student named Brandon Cook, posted this heartwarming story on his facebook wall about the customer service at a Panera in Nashua, New Hampshire.  He was visiting his grandmother in the hospital. Terribly ill with cancer, she complained to her grandson that she desperately wanted a bowl of soup, and that the hospital's soup was inedible (she used saltier language). If only she could get a bowl of her favorite clam chowder from Panera Bread!

Brandon loves his grandmother and knows she doesn’t have much time to live. Watching her die is hard every day. He wants to make her happy and knows that doing so will make him happy too. Brandon probably hasn’t eaten his grandma’s hospital food, but he can imagine how bad it is. He feels she deserves better, and he wants to give it to her.

Trouble was, Panera only sells clam chowder on Friday. So Brandon called the nearby Panera and talked to store manager Suzanne Fortier. Not only did Sue make clam chowder specially for Brandon's grandmother, she included a box of cookies as a gift from the staff.

A small act of kindness

It was a small act of kindness that would not normally make headlines. Except that Brandon told the story on his Facebook page. And, Brandon's mother, Gail Cook, retold the story on Panera's fan page. The rest, as they say, is social-media history. Gail's post generated 750,000 (and counting) "likes" and more than 32,000 comments on Panera's Facebook page. Panera, meanwhile, got something that advertising can’t buy — a genuine sense of affiliation and appreciation from customers around the world.

Marketing types have latched on to this story as a great example of social media and the power of "virtual word-of-mouth" to boost a company's reputation. Truth is, this is story is more about the hunger among customers, employees, and all of us to engage with companies on more than just “price” terms.

Given the relentless advance of technology, what seems to stand out are acts of compassion and connection and what it means to be human.

Jeff Bezos and his grandmother

In his Harvard Business School blog, writer Bill Taylor tells the story of Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com. It’s a story about Jeff’s grandmother — and what he learned when he made her cry.

During a summer road trip with his grandparents, young Jeff got fed up with his grandmother's smoking in the car — and decided to do something about it. From the backseat, he calculated how many cigarettes per day his grandmother smoked, how many puffs she took per cigarette, the health risk of each puff, and announced to her with great fanfare, "You've taken nine years off your life!"

Bezos's calculations may have been accurate — but the reaction was not what he expected. His grandmother burst into tears. His grandfather pulled the car off to the side of the road and asked young Jeff to step out. It was there and then that Jeff’s grandfather taught him a lesson that this now-billionaire has shared with the world: "My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, 'Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever.'"

Lessons for business people

Bill Taylor concludes that these simple acts of kindness are lessons that more businesspeople should understand. He asks: “What is it about business that makes it so hard to be kind?" I asked at the time. "And what kind of businesspeople have we become when small acts of kindness feel so rare?"

There are lessons here for all of us who run businesses and employ people. By all means, encourage your people to embrace technology and analytics, and ramp up the efficiency of everything they do. But make sure their efficiency doesn't come at the expense of their humanity. Small gestures like the ones above, can send big signals to our customers, about who we are, what we care about, and why people should want to affiliate with us. It's harder (and more important) to be kind than clever.

Can one person make a difference? Yes, especially when it comes to fostering a company’s culture.

Newton’s third law of motion states: for every action, there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction. How we choose to behave shapes the way others behave around us; how others behave around us shapes the way we behave.

A little info about Panera Bread:

If you view Panera’s website, you’ll find their brand positioning which states:

"We are Panera. We are bakers of bread. We are fresh from the oven. We are a symbol of warmth and welcome. We are a simple pleasure, honest and genuine. We are a life story told over dinner. We are a long lunch with an old friend. We are your weekday morning ritual. We are the kindest gesture of neighbors. We are home. We are family. We are friends".

Given the Brandon Cook story above, it’s l little wonder then that Panera Bread scored the highest level of customer loyalty among quick-casual restaurants, according to research conducted by TNS Intersearch, and ranked #2 among Excellent Large Fast-Food Chains (500 or more units) in the Sandelman & Associates 2011 Quick-Track® Study. Panera Bread was also named to BusinessWeek's 2010 list of top 25 "Customer Service Champs," to FORTUNE magazine's 2010 list of 100 Fastest-Growing Companies.

How does your company culture fare?

Mike Fromowitz



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