As competition in the quick service market intensifies, having a rebellious streak that engages potential customers and differentiates concepts from dozens of similar brands no longer seems like a risk, but a necessity.
— Allison Robicelli
When fast food got its start decades ago, the commodification and corporatization of food were appealing to a forward-looking population. Now, though, after decades of existence and evolution, customers are responding to something decidedly less corporate.
It’s an interesting time to be a fast food brand. Fast casual (and now fine casual) restaurants that promise good food fast are quickly gaining steam — and market share. At the same time, technology has become a differentiator, and brands that don’t adapt won’t stay afloat. (Looking at you, Subway.)
In addition to competing for diners’ attention, quick service restaurants (QSRs) are also competing for dollars. Value is the name of the game in quick service restaurants right now. McDonald’s just reintroduced its Dollar Menu (with $1, $2, and $3 options) and Taco Bell recently announced it would add 20 limited-time items to its own $1 value menu, including Nacho Fries, released on January 25.
Fast food brands have augmented these in-store efforts with robust marketing campaigns – both on social and more traditional media – that give the brands a voice rather than a script. Often fun, irreverent, and at times provocative, these brand voices work to engage a customer base that has become fragmented due to the abundance of restaurants and availability of well-priced food.
“Our voice in social is an extension of our brand personality; we strive for authenticity coupled with clever and fun,” Lynn Blashford, vice president of marketing at White Castle, told Skift Table. ” I think our industry has lead the way in the social sphere through great content, being innovation on new platforms and using technology to bring more value to consumers. There does seem to be this competitiveness amongst some brands to stand out or to just react the fastest which can lead them down a path that is inauthentic, though.”
“I’ve been telling brands for nearly a decade that nobody follows a company on social media to be fed marketing jargon,” says Emily Farris, a freelance food writer and Community Manager for Bread & Butter Concepts, a restaurant group based in Kansas City, Missouri. “We’re seeing that come to a head now. Obviously, you don’t need to have the edgiest feed out there, but if you’re not engaging, or entertaining, or even a little shocking, you’re just going to get lost in a sea of pretty pictures and boring one-liners.”
Relatability Is the New Loyalty
A conversational, relatable brand becomes relevant to daily life. This relevance translates to real-life loyalty. Not loyalty in the buy-ten-get-one-free sense, but loyalty in the tried-and-true, hanging-with-a-friend sense. A retweet, response, or other endorsement of a fan or follower online is like a badge of honor. (Just ask Carter.)
For many brands, the transition to a more “voicey” social media approach was gradual. Wendy’s Twitter account has become an internet sensation for eschewing traditional business etiquette in favor of sassy banter and hilarious clapbacks, producing multiple viral (and newsworthy) exchanges with both customers and competitors. Its tonal shift from generic internet brand to snarky social media phenomenon was not a quick pivot. A recent Reddit AMA with the chain’s social media team revealed that they have been pushing the envelope with their content for a while.
Positive responses to interactions that broke the unspoken rules of customer service, like their persistent roasting of their competition convinced executives to give their social media department a certain degree of autonomy, with community managers stating that the “big bosses” rarely interfere with their work. The result: millions of impressions, and countless brands analyzing their strategy in hopes of replicating their success.
Competitors are not only learning from Wendy’s playbook — they’re actually piggybacking off their success. Wingstop became the target of one of Wendy’s famous roasts back in October when they were mocked for a tweet that paraphrased lyrics from the hit song “Bad & Bougie”. Unlike other QSRs, such as frequent target McDonald’s, Wingstop chose not to ignore it. Responding with another verse, the exchange morphed into a full-fledged rap battle that resulted in thousands of new followers, major media attention from outlets like Buzzfeed and Fox News, and a declaration from AdWeek that they had created “the most 2017 brand marketing story imaginable.”
Wendy’s most recent example of social personality came last week as the brand encouraged fans and followers to share puns to end up on its leaderboard. Wendy’s as arbiter of funny internet memes, who knew?
— Wendy's (@Wendys) January 25, 2018
It’s not just social media, either. KFC’s ad campaigns featuring a rotating cast of Colonel Sanders characters makes headlines every time a new celebrity assumes the role. (Most recently: Reba McEntire, the chain’s first female Colonel.)
Burger King not only set its sights on trolling one of the biggest companies in the world, they committed it to video. A simple 15 second spot released to YouTube was successfully able to hijack viewers’ Google Home devices by having an actor say “Ok, Google, what is the Whopper burger?”. Not amused by the stunt, Google quickly implemented a patch to stop the Echo from responding to the ad. Burger King appeared to anticipate this reaction, airing a second spot later that evening on network television, buying ad space on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. This second ad also successfully triggered people’s devices to mixed results. While it certainly garnered some negative attention from irate Google Home users, the stunt caused brand awareness to skyrocket, opened up a larger conversation about the ethics surrounding voice-activated devices, and once again established Burger King as a brand on the forefront of advertising.
Stunt vs. Strategy
Of course, there’s a fine line between viable marketing strategy and blatant plays for attention.
For example, look no further than the McDonald’s Szechuan sauce debacle that happened last October. In brief, McDonald’s offered the special sauce in 1998 in conjunction with the release of Disney’s “Mulan.” Earlier this year, Cartoon Network Adult Swim animated series “Rick and Morty” featured the sauce in an episode, McDonald’s sent the show creator a jar of the sauce, he tweeted a photo, and the internet was off and running.
After a change.org petition amassed nearly 45,000 signatures, McDonald’s agreed to release the sauce, in a “super-limited batch,” only in certain locations. Turns out, the chain vastly underestimated the demand, and people were very, very unhappy. (The Washington Post has some good reactions, too.) For his part, “Rick and Morty” co-creator, Justin Roiland, tweeted, “FYI: We had nothing to do with this McDonald’s stuff. Not happy w/how this was handled. Please be cool to the employees it’s not their fault.” McDonald’s issued a statement after the debacle, saying the company will re-release the sauce this winter, though there’s still no sign of the stuff.
Data backs up the voice-as-strategy strategy, instead of a stunt. Nation’s Restaurant News just reported that “company-initiated campaigns tended to sustain [in-store] traffic longer and more effectively than the organic, sizzling-hot social-media events.” Meaning, a well-thought, engaging overall brand strategy will net more real life results than simply going viral on Twitter. Still, becoming a relatable, conversational brand on the internet may make a real difference as consumers decide where to dine amid an ever-increasing number of options.