Many food businesses recognize that “flexitarians,” people who actively choose to eat less meat, represent a growing business opportunity—one that can help improve consumers’ health and the environmental impact of their diets.
WRI’s Better Buying Lab works with leading companies in the food industry to research and test new science-based approaches that encourage consumers to choose more sustainable plant-based foods. One area of focus is understanding how food businesses can make plant-based foods more alluring on menus. Better Buying Lab recently worked with Panera Bread, a U.S.-based sandwich bakery-café with more than 2,000 locations, to test the effect on sales of changing how dishes are described.
I interviewed Mindy Gomes Casseres, Panera’s senior manager for corporate social responsibility, to discuss the results of this work.
Daniel Vennard (DV): Panera is actively encouraging people to eat more healthily and within this, to eat more plant-based options. Can you give us a bit of background on the rationale for this strategy?
Mindy Gomes Casseres (MGC): Our goal is to be an ally for the wellness of our guests. We know that around 10 percent of our guests are flexitarian, meaning that they sometimes eat meat, but sometimes choose plant-based alternatives. Guests are making this change for a variety of reasons, from personal health to concerns about the environment. We believe that plant-based eating is the key to a more sustainable food supply and we want to support this trend.
DV: Why are the names used to describe plant-based dishes important?
MGC: There’s a growing body of research, including work by the Better Buying Lab, to suggest that the labels “vegetarian” or “vegan” actually suppress appeal and sales of plant-based dishes. Additional research also shows that the right name for a dish can have the opposite effect—creating a positive connotation and helping to drive dish appeal and orders.
Based on this research, we hypothesized that the name of one of Panera’s main vegan dishes, “Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup,” could actually be suppressing sales. We wanted to find out if using an alternative name that focused more on appealing attributes like taste, provenance or preparation techniques could encourage more of our guests to try this option.
DV: Tell us about the language test Panera used to explore the effect of alternative dish names, and the results.
MGC: We started by brainstorming lots of different names, and arrived at two alternatives, each true to the dish, but that focused on its appealing attributes. “Slow Simmered Black Bean Soup” was chosen to showcase the deep flavor that comes from the care and time spent in cooking the dish. “Cuban Black Bean” was the other name, chosen to reflect the soup’s Cuban heritage and its spicy blend of black beans, bell peppers, garlic and cumin.
We then tested each of these names in our cafes. “Slow Simmered Black Bean Soup” was trialed in 22 locations in the Nashville and Lexington areas, and “Cuban Black Bean Soup” was trialed in 18 cafes in Los Angeles. These markets are representative of Panera’s average soup sales.
During the test, the only thing that we changed was the name of the soup, which we updated across all ordering channels including menu panels, mobile, online, in-café kiosk and drive-thru. We didn’t update the soup name in our catering materials, so chose not to include these sales in our analysis.
Panera ran this test from January 17 to February 20, 2018. We compared sales in this period against a set of control cafes with similar soup sales data from the year before.
We found that the name changes really made a difference. While switching to “Slow Simmered Black Bean Soup” had no statistically significant effect on soup sales, the name “Cuban Black Bean Soup” gave us an average 13 percent uplift, which is a statistically significant increase. This was an exciting finding for us.
DV: That’s an interesting result. What else did you learn?
MGC: I was actually really surprised that the name “Cuban Black Bean Soup” created such a large sales lift, whereas “Slow Simmered Black Bean Soup” had no effect. We thought about the reasons for this, and hypothesize that as Los Angeles is a diverse, metropolitan area where many different types of cuisine are appreciated and sought out, highlighting the Cuban roots of the dish added real appeal by cueing a specific flavor and spice profile. What we now need to do is test this name in additional markets to see if the trend holds nationally.
We’re unsure why “Slow Simmered Black Bean Soup” didn’t boost sales in the same way—perhaps slow simmered is the wrong descriptive language for soup?
One big thing that we are taking away from our work with the Better Buying Lab, however, is just how important it is to experiment with different names and collect data on which are the most appealing for our guests. The fact that there were such big differences between the two names, despite our original thinking that both names would appeal to our guests, really highlights that you need to think carefully about and then test out the right language for a given dish.
DV: Have you done any other work on the influence of food labelling on consumer choices?
MGC: Yes. We recently rolled out “added sugar” labeling on all our drink stations nationally. For each beverage, we labeled teaspoons of added sugar. We priced the new beverages the same as the soda fountain drinks, even though their profit margins were not as good, because we knew price was also important to shift consumer choices. After the first 18 months, we saw soda sales decline 19 percent year over year. Today, a third of the beverages consumed at Panera have shifted to no added sugar, a third are moderately sweetened and a third are soda. This again reinforces how the words and information that we use on menus or at point of sale can really influence guests’ decisions.
At the end of the day, we know that taste trumps all, but language can have a positive effect in helping people to make choices that align with their personal wellness and environmental goals.
DV: How has the descriptive language test changed what you do as a company?
MGC: It’s definitely made us re-think our naming strategy. We’re currently testing a newer range of vegan and vegetarian soups, none of which have “vegan” in the name. Instead we’re focusing upon descriptive names that highlight flavors and provenance, like “Santa Fe Black Bean Soup.” We believe this strategy will help us convince guests to try something new—not because it’s vegan, but because it’s delicious. In doing so, we can help introduce more guests to sustainable, plant-based options.
Panera is a partner and funder of WRI’s Better Buying Lab. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of WRI.