social media fast food

One of my favorite reads this year was an article over at the Guardian titled “How the Sandwich Consumed Britain.” The title is self-explanatory: It’s a 40-year history about just how much Britain loves its sandwiches.

I went into it with low expectations – the right thing to do with anything related to British food – but was pleasantly surprised with the quirky obsessiveness of everyone who appears in the piece. Just look at this example sentence: “In the trade, the small gaps that can occur within the curves of iceberg lettuce leaves – creating air pockets – are sometimes known was ‘goblin caves.’”

One of the most notable parts comes right before the story of the Earl of Sandwich (who I was disappointed to learn did NOT invent his namesake creation during a prolonged gambling binge). It’s about the modern-day godfather of British sandwicherie, Roger Whiteside:

“In the early ‘90s, Whiteside developed M&S’s first dedicated ‘food to go’ section, with its own tills and checkouts, in Manchester. The innovation prefigured the layout of most contemporary supermarkets, and was fabulously successful. But it wasn’t successful enough for Whiteside. He didn’t understand why absolutely everyone in Manchester city centre wasn’t coming in to M&S for their lunch.

“One day, he went into a branch of Boots on the other side of the street. Like almost every major retail chain, the pharmacy had followed M&S into the sandwich business…but Whiteside was convinced that its sandwiches weren’t as good as M&S’s, and that most customers knew that, too. He confronted the lunchtime queue in Boots and asked people why they weren’t coming to his store. “They said: ‘Well, I am not crossing the road’,” he recalled.

“The answer struck Whiteside with great force. Mass-producing a meal that you could, if necessary, rip open and consume in the street was transforming people’s behaviour. “Instant gratification and total convenience and delivery,” Whiteside said. “If you are not there, they are not going looking for you.”

After this eureka moment, he’d go on to suggest M&S expand to hundreds of standalone shops across the country. His managers didn’t go for it. He must have been on to something – today, the UK food-to-go industry (the largest of its kind in Europe) is estimated to be £20 billion in size.

Before I even came across British sandwiches, I had been thinking about fast food a lot. Specifically, fast food and social media. It all started one day when I was browsing through my feed, looking at NBA highlights (my primary use for Twitter) and came across this:

Get it? Me neither. And apparently that’s OK with Arby’s. According to an interview with their social team, 60% of their audience isn’t expected to understand. As the story goes, Arby’s approach to social all changed one day when a joke about hash browns and the Legend of Zelda received record engagement. So, naturally, everything became a video game reference. There’s no place for half-stepping or nuance on Twitter.

Look – I’m not here to hate on Arby’s. For what it’s worth, I think it’s all good and fun. I just don’t see the payoff in spending 30+ hours per post designing cardboard anime. Is winning over the diehard gaming community really the key to selling roast beef sandwiches in 2017?

Now, if racking up engagement numbers is so critical, they could always embrace a devoted brand advocate:

I also enjoyed this interview from Splinter with the Wendy’s social media manager whose witty quip to a troll about refrigerators caused everyone to briefly lose their minds. She was particularly on point with her explanation of the daily struggles in running a brand’s social account:

“Here’s the thing about community management: It’s fun sometimes, but more often than not it’ll make you want to throw a chair through your computer screen. Because you know who actually wants to engage with a brand on Twitter dot com? Angry people. Trolls. And every other marketer in the world, so they can tell you why you suck and they’d be better at your job. Vegans send you pictures of slaughtered animals. You get “deez nuts” jokes about 40 times a day. When someone gets the wrong cheeseburger, they’ll send you a string of profane insults in all caps.”

That apt description brought back traumatic memories. Many moons ago, I watched in horror as a client became public enemy No. 1 online for some rather enthusiastic gun owners – all because a guy with an assault rifle was asked to leave a grocery store. It forever made me appreciate the real, patient human beings who choose to monitor corporate social media pages.

It’s understandably exhausting to sit there, day-in, day-out, and acknowledge all the dreck that people spew toward companies online. That’s why the Wendy’s sass was so universally well received – it’s what nearly every community manager wishes he or she could do. We should let them all abandon their canned responses and battle the trolls for a day, like an online Purge, just to get it out of their system. They’ve earned it.

But, just like with Arby’s and video games, I keep coming back to the same question: What does this really achieve? Does the gimmick truly compel hungry people to choose Baconators instead of Big Macs? Are the people witnessing these witty exchanges (let’s call a spade a spade here: millennials) seeking out their fast food from whoever’s social feed is the most relatable?

Or, as Mr. Whiteside learned, are people lazily going to make do with whatever’s on their side of the street?

From 2016 to 2017, marketing budgets were decreased from 12.1% to 11.3% of company revenue (per Gartner’s annual CMO Spend Survey). That trend is likely to continue. Marketing dollars are going to be increasingly more difficult to come by if they can’t easily be tied back to sales. Therein lies the problem inherent with a robust fast food social media program: How can you prove that warm and fuzzy brand voice made people cross the street?

After the turn of the millennium, when Britain had established a sandwicherie on every corner, the focus throughout the industry doubled back on the product itself:

“Obsessed by perfection and market share, the sandwich world is, unsurprisingly, one beset by conditions of permanent and ruthless competition. Every week, rival sandwich developers from the big players buy each other’s products, take them apart, weigh the ingredients, and put them back together again. ‘It is an absolute passion,’ one former M&S supplier told me. ‘For everybody. It has to be.’”

And it finally goes on to establish the end game in all of this:

“The most obvious – and ambitious – plot of the sandwich industry is to make us eat them throughout the day. People in the trade, I noticed, rarely talk about breakfast, lunch or dinner. They speak instead about ‘day parts’, ‘occasions’ and ‘missions’, and any and all of these is good for a sandwich…And the next frontier, logic dictates, is dinner – or, as it was described to me at Adelie Foods, ‘the fragmentation of the evening occasion’.”

This all makes sense! Customers clearly valued convenience; so putting a sandwich shop on every corner was the first step. From there, the next logical points would be making the best sandwich possible and encouraging them to be eaten at every hour of the day. It does not appear, at any point, the sandwich makers stopped to ask themselves how they’re going to relate to tweens.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Taco Bell gets it. Its research and development operation runs through 300-500 new concepts a year, about 10% of which make it to testing in market. Two of their recent endeavors: The Doritos Locos Taco (which sold $1 billion-plus worth) and a dedicated breakfast menu (responsible for 6.5% same store growth at launch). Or, to put it more simply, a better ingredient and a new time slot.

Forgive me if I’m coming across as a miserly grouch. That’s not the point. If fast food wants to insist on wading into the cesspool that is Twitter today, may as well be clever about it. My gripe is that it’s an expensive, high-risk, low-reward exercise to be “joining the conversation” at all. As marketing resources continue to dwindle, talking about the brand should take a back seat to making sure the product is as strong as possible. Perhaps fast food chains should be concerned with finding new and exciting ways to feed customers, not provide them with camaraderie.