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Panera Bread Demonstrates the Power of a Successful Brand Stunt

During the height of summer 2021, Panera Bread launched a limited-edition swimwear collection called Swim Soup. Year-round soup aficionados rejoiced for the chance to cool down with one of the four broccoli cheddar soup-inspired swimwear styles and Bread Bowl Pool Float.

The adorable and quirky summer attire was such a hit that the entire line sold out less than a week. Panera’s unexpected swimwear launch was a huge success, raising the question: what impact can a short-lived marketing stunt have on a brand’s engagement with consumers?


What is a brand stunt?

A brand stunt is a marketing play used to attract the attention of consumers and create buzz. Marketers know that it is challenging to earn consumers’ attention in today’s modern retail space.

A stunt serves as a disruptive marketing technique to gain customers’ attention in unique and unexpected ways. It can come in different forms, such as a surprising product launch, provocative social media campaign, or sudden software activation.

Whatever the method, the goal of a stunt is to spark conversation and generate brand awareness by becoming part of the convo on social media.

A stunt is also a great way to be seen as more relevant than it might be ordinarily viewed and, if done right, wins some customer love and loyalty.

According to marketing expert Margo Kahnrose, CMO of Skai, the key to a successful stunt is invoking emotions that get through to customers and make them feel something. When done right, the customer is forever associated with that brand because of the positive interaction.


Creating the perfect stunt

To execute a successful campaign, brands can’t just launch a potentially risky stunt out of nowhere. The goal is to delight and surprise your audience, not to alienate and offend.

Marketers need to be insights-driven when designing a stunt to generate positive engagement. Research is required to discover what customers are talking about online and how the brand fits into the conversation. Before launching a stunt, brands must consider their goals, customer, timing, and risk.


Set ROI goals

Establishing defined ROI objectives and goals is a foundational step to designing a successful campaign. Not every stunt has a direct correlation to revenue, but it can produce value in other ways. Some common types of ROI brands seek include attracting a bigger audience, increasing customer engagement, or driving sales.

Kahnrose encourages marketers to set an intention and plan for measuring success before the stunt goes live.

If the goal is to acquire customers and increase sales, a well-designed stunt can be a way for brands to growth-hack their way forward.

Unlike traditional one-way marketing communication, which is appropriate for slow and steady growth, a stunt can generate a more immediate impact and lead to a powerful bump in sales.

If new customers enjoy the product or service, this growth hack can serve the larger goal of gaining repeat customers and increasing their lifetime value.


Think like the customer

Stunts are not a one size fits all tactic. Each brand has a unique customer base and understanding what will generate a positive reaction is crucial. Brands should stay authentic and craft a stunt with a message that reflects their customers’ values while piquing their curiosity.  


Consider timing 

The timing of a stunt can make or break a campaign. Successful brands keep a finger on the pulse of pop culture and execute when there is an opportunity to address important themes and seasonal trends.

Aligning a stunt to key dates, such as April Fool’s Day or the first day of fall, helps create a memorable message that consumers forever associate with a point in time. Likewise, a timely campaign coinciding with trending topics, events, or conversations can catapult a brand to viral success.

Panera seized the opportunity to get social media buzzing about soup in summer by engaging year-round soup eaters. The company conducted a study and found that over 70% of people say the hot weather does not stop them from eating soup.

Pairing this message with their summer apparel tapped into the passion of die-hard soup fans who helped spark social media conversation that made people think about soup in the off-season. This emotional engagement with consumers earned Panera the reaction they intended—positive buzz and brand awareness.


Consider risk 

A brand stunt is perilous; it can cause irrevocable harm to a brand’s reputation if executed poorly. Before investing in a large-scale campaign, Kahnrose suggests thinking of low-risk ways to engage consumers. By testing the waters, brands can collect valuable intel and decide if guerrilla marketing or a stunt effectively reaches the target audience.

“The key to a successful stunt is to embrace brand identity and exude authenticity,” she said.

A stunt that comes across as insensitive or thoughtless carries the risk of a brand appearing selfish, vain, or completely negligent. Considering everything spreads like wildfire on social media, such a miscalculation can have long-lasting detrimental effects to brand reputation.

The right marketing stunt can lead a business to viral success, but it does not come without risk. The key to an effective campaign is engaging customers on an emotional and delighting them in unexpected ways. Stunts that spark interesting conversation and pique the internet’s curiosity will generate attention that can propel a brand forward.

When looking to create brand buzz, take a page out of Panera’s playbook: remember to be unique and authentic—the world is ready to devour the next big brand stunt.