Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the last few months, you’ll almost certainly have come across the discussion surrounding the Twitter account of fast food behemoth Wendy’s.
Yes, one of the largest hamburger chains in the world decided to make a splash with its social media strategy, and the campaign has undoubtedly worked – at least from the perspective of bringing attention to the brand.
What’s interesting is the way that Wendy’s has gone about its new social media presence, adopting a controversial, combative tone that can only be described as “savage.” For some, it’s a stroke of genius, helping a company with a pretty run-of-the-mill product stand out from competitors in a way its square patties just don’t do.
@6371c5ddf354451 what’d they win? A participation trophy?
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) January 4, 2017
Others have some beef with the approach, believing the flame-grilled roasting of other fast food companies (and even Wendy’s own customers) has gone a step too far. But what’s the real truth of the matter? And what lessons can smaller businesses learn from the story when it comes to their own social media tones?
Snarky social snacks: Wendy’s on Twitter
Wendy’s has been active on Twitter for a long time – signing up in July 2009. For most of that time, the company was your typical big business on social media, doing typical big business on social media things: “Check out this great deal,” “We’re launching a new product,” and “No weekend is complete without a Thick Shake!”
Then, it all changed. Starting in December last year, Wendy’s began adopting a far more aggressive tone, starting with the clinical takedown of Twitter user Thuggy-D. We won’t go into the full details of the long, brutal and rather hilarious battle between the two accounts, but you can check out the video above to see Anderson Cooper reenacting the whole thing after the tweets went viral.
Wendy’s had gone rogue, and things only got more intense, culminating in what may be the most important tweet of the whole story – a captionless picture of a rubbish bin in reply to the question of “can you find me the nearest Mcdonalds?” Yup. Brutal.
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) January 3, 2017
With the rubbish bin tweet exploding on the internet, the team running Wendy’s social media accounts sensed that they had struck gold. In fact, that particular tweet represented an all-time peak in engagement for the company, as you can see in the below graph from social analytics company Simply Measured, who collected data during this flurry of online activity.
Wendy’s kept pushing the boundaries, and with each savage new roast or meme the buzz continued to grow and grow, until the story was being reported on by established and respected sources like Forbes, who described the change of tone as “a bold move from an otherwise docile brand,” – a great way of explaining the success of the strategy.
Simply put, the shift was unexpected. We just don’t see these huge companies having fun with social media, and it’s refreshing. The lesson here is that businesses shouldn’t be afraid to step outside their comfort zone. As long as they are producing engaging content!
.@McDonalds So you’ll still use frozen beef in MOST of your burgers in ALL of your restaurants? Asking for a friend.
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) March 30, 2017
The tide turns: When being edgy backfires
Unfortunately, the concept of ‘going rogue’ does mean that each tweet or piece of content has to escalate the joke, which has been a major factor in the growing backlash against Wendy’s and it’s online approach.
Wendy’s really rode the wave of its newfound popularity, obliging requests from customers to be ‘roasted’ and posting memes like there was no tomorrow. Unfortunately, that wave crashed pretty quickly, when the account posted a ‘Wendy-fied’ version of the ‘Pepe the Frog’ meme, which was designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League in September 2016. The tweet was quickly deleted, with Wendy’s claiming not to know of the meme’s significance. Even so, the backlash was swift, with many decrying the brand for allowing the account to spiral out of control, taking its controversial approach too far.
@ceophono No, your opinion is though.
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) January 3, 2017
Since then, Wendy’s has reigned things in enormously. The twitter presence is still a lot quirkier than most, but nowhere near the levels of earlier this year. So, what can we learn from this rollercoaster, and how can it apply to other businesses looking to build on their content marketing strategy with social media?
Key takeaways: Striking the right tone for social media
At a glance, it might seem like businesses can recreate the Wendy’s secret social media sauce by being similarly aggressive, but that’s only a very small aspect of what made the campaign so successful, and a much larger part of the growing backlash. Controversy can work, but it’s a short-term strategy.
Instead, take lessons from the other reasons behind Wendy’s social success, such as the unexpectedness of the tone and style, the humour and wittiness of the tweets, and the consistency of these quality posts.. These tips may sounds simple, but they’re really quite tricky. Getting them right requires the right expertise and a comprehensive content strategy, as well as a clear understanding of what your brand is all about, and what you’re trying to accomplish.