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Fast-food restaurants have always been fiercely competitive, and the latest frontier for those old culinary rivalries? Social media.
Fast-food and fast-casual chains have launched some seriously creative campaigns in recent years to win the attention – and appetites – of potential customers, and some of those clever social media marketing blitzes have resulted in real boosts to the bottom lines of some of America’s best-established brands.
To see how they did it, we took a closer look at five of the most successful and impactful fast-food social media campaigns in recent years.
Burger King’s Chicken Fries
Many venerable fast-food brands have struggled with the best way to lure millennials into their restaurants. In Burger King’s case, the trick was simply listening.
In January 2014, the company noticed an odd trend in social media: millennials were increasingly lamenting the disappearance of Burger King’s chicken fries, which had been removed from their menu two years earlier.
Merely bringing back a popular menu item isn’t a stroke of genius, but the reason this campaign resonated to such a degree is that Burger King revived the snack with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and presented the decision as a victory of sorts for the company’s loyal customers and social media followers.
— Stranger King (@BurgerKing) August 8, 2014
The company received 380 tweets every minute about the chicken-fry revival, while also garnering mainstream coverage from the likes of Time and the Huffington Post. A YouGov survey of Millennials showed that their perceptions of Burger King increased 44 percent during the first two weeks of the campaign, while their impressions of McDonald’s and Wendy’s dropped 84 percent and 28 percent during the same time period. Meanwhile, sales jumped in the U.S. and Canada by the biggest amount in two years.
It’s not the only time Burger King got creative with a social media campaign. More recently, a group of influencers realized that Burger King was liking their old tweets and, of course, took to social media to speculate as to why – meaning Burger King was able to leverage their huge followings while simultaneously drawing news attention, all with a few clicks.
Another clever attention-grabbing stunt was the company’s invitation to McDonald’s to team up for a “peace offering” called the McWhopper, which would raise awareness for Peace One Day. The proposal garnered lots of headlines, but it also had the added benefit of creating a backlash against their rivals when McDonald’s declined.
Rarely has a brand created such a social-media stir by simply flipping a letter upside-down.
Last June, pancake chain IHOP tweeted that after 60 years in business, it was changing its name to IHOb – but provided no indication of why.
— IHOP (@IHOP) June 4, 2018
The tweet received nearly 50,000 shares and replies as the company’s social-media following guessed at what the name change could signify.
When the company eventually revealed that the “b” was signaling a new line of burgers from the breakfast institution, that tweet received more than 75,000 shares and replies. Other fast-food chains even got in on the fun, with Burger King changing its profile to “Pancake King” and Wendy’s and Denny’s taking playful shots at the campaign.
Part of the genius of the stunt was how it worked over the news media. Major outlets including CNN, Time, and USA Today reported breathlessly on every twist in the saga, with the first batch of high-profile news stories coming at the announcement of the name change, the second with the burger reveal, and the third when IHOP announced only a month later that it was ditching the switch.
In all, there were 1.8 million mentions of IHOB and 1 million mentions of IHOP on Twitter between June 1 and June 13, 2018, and the name switch generated roughly 15,000 media stories even before announcing they were reverting back to the original name.
Although some decried the stunt as annoying, it certainly got people talking, and it won three Effie Awards, including gold in the restaurant category.
“We think it was a huge success,” IHOP president Darren Rebelez told Business Insider.
“Literally everybody in the world now knows that IHOP is now selling burgers. That was goal No. 1. Goal No. 2 was to actually sell them.”
Well, they accomplished that too. Rebelez said restaurants saw four to seven times more burger orders after the name change.
Taco Bell’s Taco Emoji
Many brands have recently angled after their own custom emojis – but only Taco Bell managed to turn it into a movement.
The #TacoEmoji campaign began somewhat organically, with Twitter users tagging Taco Bell wondering about the absence of a pixelated taco icon in their phones. A Change.org petition followed, garnering nearly 33,000 petitions in seven months, and the company even made T-shirts.
— Taco Bell (@tacobell) January 28, 2015
The campaign was successful, and the Unicode Consortium – which regulates coding standards – eventually approved the taco emoji in June 2015. But the campaign wasn’t notable only because customers can text each other pictures of tacos now. The brilliance of Taco Bell’s marketing strategy lay in the rollout following Unicode’s decision.
Immediately after the emoji was introduced, the company launched the #TacoEmojiEngine campaign, promising that anyone who tweeted the taco and another emoji would instantly be rewarded with a reply from the company featuring a custom GIF. In all, Taco Bell created 600 original GIFs for the campaign and also rolled out four colorful and “highly Instagrammable” Doritos Locos Taco holders that featured the emoji in different ways.
Though the campaign was obviously a stunt, executives with the company said it worked because it carried an undercurrent of authenticity.
“This is about the taco having its rightful place in the official emoji keyboard – this wasn’t about us doing a branded thing,” said Marisa Thalberg, Chief Brand Engagement Officer for Taco Bell.
“We had our hopes raised and dashed a few times along the way, but ultimately Unicode came through, and it’s here.”
Domino’s – Honesty is the Best Policy
Back in 2010, with profits declining and sales sagging, Domino’s adopted an interesting strategy: tell the truth about its previously lackluster pizza.
Certainly, introducing a newly reformulated pizza recipe by insulting the old one was risky, but the clever apology tour campaign essentially established a new overarching strategy of blunt honesty that has served the brand extremely well since.
The same year they started saying sorry, Domino’s launched the Show Us Your Pizza campaign and began sharing unvarnished photos of its pizza and other products from real customers.
Does the pizza sometimes look greasy, messy, or dimly lit? Sure, but it also looks real, and it’s clear that the strategy is working; Domino’s is the industry leader on Instagram according to a study from ShareIQ, which found that the brand received 1.4 million likes in the first few months of 2018, compared to 197,000 for McDonald’s and 127,000 for Wendy’s.
“In this space, we actually are finding that less than perfect is sometimes actually perfect,” says Dennis Maloney, Domino’s Chief Digital Officer. “A lot of customers are out photographing their food. They know, depending on where you take it and the light you’re under, food looks different. It feels much more honest and transparent when the images are imperfect.
“Even if it is a little bit gooey, greasy, the packaging isn’t perfect, and there’s a bit of a burnt spot, that’s the pizza you get,” he added. “And that makes you think how good it was last time you had it.”
Another clever campaign Domino’s launched recently was #PavingForPizza, in which the company urged customers to nominate potholes in their town for repair. The campaign elicited 54,000 social-media mentions, drew mainstream news coverage, and led to more than 137,000 nominations in all 50 states.
All this attention is paying real dividends. In 2018, Domino’s finally overtook Pizza Hut as the top pizza chain in the U.S. with $12.3 billion in gross sales.
Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino
When it comes to social media marketing successes, Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino really does seem like the stuff of mythology.
As part of the rollout of its Frappuccino Happy Hour, the coffee chain unveiled the vibrantly hued, sugar-loaded frozen treat and social media pretty much lost its collective mind.
In the single week, the Unicorn Frapp was available in April 2017, there were more than 180,000 posts on social media featuring the bright beverage. The mango-flavored drink became a media sensation too. News outlets ran dozens of stories investigating its ingredients or conducting taste tests.
Even late-night comics got in on the action, with Stephen Colbert performing a “hate-taste” of the beverage and Jimmy Kimmel teasing that it looks like a “windbreaker from the ‘80s.”
“It’s got everything in it but coffee,” he joked. “Who says America doesn’t invent anything anymore? It’s only available through April 23 or when someone dies from drinking it, whatever comes first.”
So yes, many of the reviews were less-than-glowing. But there’s no arguing with the value of the publicity it generated – in just one week, the Unicorn Frappuccino led to an increase and a 3 percent increase in same-store sales for that quarter.
That social-media success has been tough to replicate for the Seattle-based company. Last March, the limited-time-only Crystal Ball Frappuccino was unveiled, but it only drove an incremental 0.4 percent increase in social media mentions, compared with 6.5 percent for the Unicorn Frappuccino.
Unicorns really are rare.
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