“My grandmother is passing soon with cancer. I visited her the other day and she was telling me about how she really wanted soup, but not hospital soup because she said it tasted like ‘shit.’ She went on about how she really would like some clam chowder from Panera. Unfortunately, Panera only sells clam chowder on Friday. I called the manager Sue and told them the situation. I wasn’t looking for anything special just a bowl of clam chowder. Without hesitation she said absolutely she would make her some clam chowder. When I went to pick it up they wound up giving me a box of cookies as well. It’s not that big of a deal to most, but to my grandma it meant a lot. I really want to thank Sue and the rest of the staff from Panera just for making my grandmother happy. Thank you so much!”
Obviously this is a simple story of a small kindness. But what is interesting is not the story itself but the fact that this ingenuous tale of the love of Brandon Cook for his granny and the generous spirit of the Panera manager, which was reposted on Panera’s fan page, has generated over 750,000 “likes” and uncountable thousands of passionate comments since its appearance two months ago. Mr. Nudd reports Brandon Cook being taken aback by the spontaneous viral reaction to his short post, saying, “If my grandma even knew what a Facebook page was, I’d show her…My grandma’s greatest fear is dying with no friends. I wish I could show her how many ‘friends’ she has out there, and how many prayers people are saying for her.” Aah.
The interesting part of this story is not it’s heart-warming essence, but rather the phenomenal response to it. I see many marketers, digital advertisers, and public relations-types making triumphalist internet cacophonies about the efficaciousness of social media, per this story. However, I wonder if these often smug I-told-you-so commentaries on the dawning power of social media (in this case Facebook) may be suffering from a self-congratulatory hubris that is not at all really the essence of the popular response to this story.
The multitudinous self-congratulatory comments I see from so many marketing mavens may be missing what the vociferous reaction to this story really is. Certainly the marketing professionals chest-thumping brings out a certain Luddite disquiet in me.
There is a cynicism to the celebration of how this feel good story has boosted the Panera Bread brand. Not because the tale isn’t true and honest and good, but because of the marketing assumption behind many comments on this story, which is that people will respond to marketing spin through our new communication mediums. Yes, new media is good at rapidly spreading this charming and ingenuous recounting of Brandon Cook’s appreciation for a small act of commercial kindness. But I believe what people are responding to is an ineffable realness and human care that utterly transcends and defies the manipulations of new media, even as it is spread by them.
In a time when major articles in the Wall Street Journal (Joseph Walker, 9/20/12) and the Harvard Business Review (October, 2012) extoll the engineering prowess and hegemony of Big Data and quantification analysis, I see the outpouring of response to this small human story as a rejection of the manipulations of the magical new media gospel.
There is an obvious and appropriate celebration of goodness that can and should be disseminated effectively via the internet. But there is no true substitute for elemental goodness in business. Simple goodness is a winning business strategy. Ask Zappos, ask Starbucks, ask Whole Foods, et. al. There is nothing more compelling than a company that really is what it purports to be, that walks the walk of its talk. A million small acts of service and customer care ultimately create the most efficacious brands. Good is greed, not the opposite.
The world is being stalked by a relentless coldness that is a sad bit of baggage, seemingly inevitably attached to technological advance. Brandon Cook’s story reminds us that many small acts of kindness may be more ultimately powerful then a trillion email blasts and phony buzz manipulations. People ultimately know the real thing. By your works ye shall be known.
As Albert Einstein said, “It has become appallingly obvious our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Amen, Albert.