downloadUntil two years ago fast food chain Wendy’s had a very limited social media presence, yet today it is recognised as one of the leaders in its industry thanks to a digital transformation instigated by Brandon Rhoten, vice president for digital and social media for Wendy’s.

The first Wendy’s restaurant opened in 1969 in Columbus, Ohio and with more than 6,500 franchise and company restaurants in the US and abroad Wendy’s is the world’s third largest quick-service hamburger company.

Why Wendy’s needed to change

However with new, more modern competitors disrupting the fast food scene the company has had to transform its offer and its customer perception – with social media and digital marketing being crucial to its change. With a background in PR and media Rhoten says he was recognised as “the web guy who understood the web space” early on in his career – which has included spells at advertising agency Gyro and Remington Arms amongst others. Two years ago he was hired by Wendy’s – part of a reconfiguration that included a new CEO and CMO – and tasked with setting up a new digital marketing function. “When I first came on we were focussed on traditional marketing but the company knew we needed to move to social and digital,” says Rhoten.

Understanding whether Wendy’s could use digital to sell

“In the last two years we have had to look at whether we can sell in our restaurants using digital. Early Wendy’s digital presence was very cookie cutter. We had a lot of banner ads and a few thousand followers but there was no one to lead. We were never mentioned in same breath as anyone who knew what they were doing,” he says.

From social media novice to social media leader

Now the company is winning awards and getting attention. “As an organisation we’ve recognised digital can actually influence consumers to come into our restaurants. From an external perspective we now have a distinct voice—we’re having meaningful conversations with people. The result is that we have gone from a few thousand followers to tens of millions and from a few hundred conversations a day to thousands. And our sales are rocking,” he says.

The role of social in the next step of change

In the last six months Rhoten says he and his team have been focussed on looking at what’s the next step. “What are the technologies that will propel the business forward,” he says. This is seeing the company launch and trial a number of new initiatives for its business. In March it launched mobile payments in 85 per cent of its restaurants – a move that Rhoten says wasn’t without its challenges since the company’s business is heavily drive through dominated.

Unlike the likes of Starbucks who has been using a bar code or QR code on customer’s handsets to instigate payment Rhoten says Wendy’s needed a different option that would avoid the customer having to pass over their mobile phones. “Most of our sales go through drive-through so we don’t want people to have to hand their phone out of the window or for staff to have to handle smart phones so we needed a different way to interface,” he says.

Initially this is through a dynamically generated six digit code that is read out to the Wendy’s member of staff although Wendy’s is looking at location technologies such as iBeacon to instigate payments longer term. “Our business is different so we had to create a different way to interact with the POS but consumers have really liked it. Any complaints have been more about learning the technology and learning how to use a payment system,” he says.

Testing new services

Rhoten is planning to add further functionality and has a loyalty and rewards programme in internal testing currently. “What we didn’t want was a buy ten get one free scenario. We are not about quantity or really low prices, so we have built out a more personalised experience that looks at what you care about,” he says. And, like McDonald’s who spoke at #SMWF Europe last month, Wendy’s is testing mobile ordering to improve the customer experience and is currently working on the challenges of identifying when the customer is instore to pick up their order and how to serve that customer without upsetting other customers in the queue.

Is there still time for brands to get into social media? 

Wendy’s experience- and success – in the last two years alone shows that brands can still steal a lead in social media. “It absolutely is not too late for companies but you have to have to build an awesome team, both internal and through agency partners. It takes time but any company can do this – a good place to start is what story your company is trying to tell,” he says.

Rhoten is one of more than 70 speakers who will be presenting at #SMWF North America May 28-29, 2014, where he will be explaining more about the journey of Wendy’s from social media dabbler to a social media leader.