Panda Express Taps Havas Formula to Help Tell Values-Based Stories

American Chinese Food Chain Wants Narrative to Focus Less on Food, More on Brand's Culture

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Panda Express' signature orange chicken dish
Panda Express' signature orange chicken dish Credit: Courtesy of Panda Express

Panda Express has hired Havas Formula as its PR and social media agency as the family-owned American Chinese food chain looks to build emotional connections with consumers worldwide by focusing less on food-based stories and more on the brand's values.

The restaurant, which has more than 1,900 locations across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam, Canada, Mexico, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Korea, selected Havas Formula following a competitive review run by External View Consulting Group. Seven agencies competed for the business, but the brand didn't ask for spec work from the shops because the review was more about chemistry, said Dave Wallinga, VP-guest marketing at parent company Panda Restaurant Group. He added that Havas Formula's culture and expertise shined in the review. It was not immediately clear whether Panda Express previously worked with an agency for PR or social.

While most of Havas Formula's work will take place in North America, Mr. Wallinga said the agency will support Panda Express in all of its markets, especially in areas the brand is growing, such as Dubai, Asia and Saudi Arabia. The chain expects to open 110 locations in the U.S. this year, with a particular focus on Northeast markets, like New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Mr. Wallinga said the brand decided to seek support for communications and social because it wanted a shop that "could tell more compelling stories and that's more in the wheelhouse of PR agencies frankly than advertising agencies."

Panda Express is looking to expand its social media strategy from a food-centric approach to a more holistic one around its values, such as gratitude and generosity. "We want to have deeper conversations on social media," added Mr. Wallinga, "and believe me I want to sell orange chicken, but we want people to understand Panda as a brand, and we think our values help create that understanding more than anything."

Even though Panda Express' first restaurant opened in a mall in 1983, only 11% of the brand's locations are mall-based today, said Mr. Wallinga, who added that the company is interested in talking to people about American Chinese cuisine. He said there's been an evolving trend around American Chinese cuisine, with the premiere of the documentary "The Search for General Tso" last year and the book "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" being released in 2008.

Michael Olguin, president of Havas Formula, said the agency will help "build an emotional attachment" with consumers so they're going to Panda Express because they "feel something," not just because they're hungry. One way the shop, which is leading the account out of its Los Angeles office, will develop that narrative is by leveraging the family-owned elements of the business. Husband-and-wife team Andrew and Peggy Cherng still run the business today as co-chairs and co-CEOs.

Havas Formula will work on content creation, community management and social media strategy for the brand, in addition to offering PR, thought leadership, influencer engagement and grand opening support. The shop will also collaborate with Panda Express' creative agency Bailey Lauerman, which began working with the brand after a review two years ago also run by External View Consulting Group. Pal 8 Media supports Panda Express on the media side.

Budget information for the account was not disclosed. Panda Express spent an estimated $6.4 million on measured media in 2014, according to Kantar Media.

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