A short clap-back is what ignited the “chicken sandwich war” of 2019. Following the release of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich, Chick-fil-A made an indirect jab at the company on Twitter, and less than three hours later, got served a snarky reply.
Popeyes’ humorous response led to widespread support for the brand, and further fueled a national conversation about which sandwich was better. The resulting 265,662 Twitter mentions, coverage on the radio, cable news, and across most major online and print news outlets earned Popeyes $65 million in media value. The sandwich itself sold out two weeks after launch, leading to a 10.2% improvement in same-store sales - the brand’s best performance on that metric in the last five years.
Popeyes kept this momentum going by responding to another tweet from Wendy’s, reacting to customer tweets, announcing details of the restock, and taking more digs at Chick-fil-A.
“We just wanted to do our best to not kill the vibe,” says Bruno Cardinali, a marketing executive at Popeyes, who says that each decision to join the conversation was deliberate and informed by their strategy.
Cardinali additionally notes that the combination of a quality product, a distinctive brand voice, and an integrated approach to social media is what led to lasting results.
Achieving those levels of viral success is what every social media marketer dreams of - but how can you do it? How can you re-create the success of a campaign like this within your process?
Here are some tips, based on this and other social campaign success stories.
Lead with a compelling product or service
Having exceptional products and services worth promoting is a requirement of any effective social media campaign, as the quality of your offerings is what triggers a conversation.
“It's important to spend the proper time to develop something that's really amazing and really outstanding that drives people to react,” says Cardinali.
Cardinali says that Popeyes’ chicken sandwich was in production for four years prior to its release in 2019, with a process that involved creating the sandwich, conducting product tests, sourcing the right suppliers, and training their 2,400+ locations on how to prepare the sandwich.
For your organization, the process for developing a worthwhile product might be exceeding industry quality standards, running extensive quality control testing, or adapting to consumer feedback about a product category.
It’s equally important for marketers to impact the cues that influence the "perception of product quality" - like an organization’s reputation, reference prices, third-party reviews, and product presentation.
Improving a product’s presentation is what the marketing team at BarkBox, a subscription service for dog products, is able to do when it collaborates with the design team behind the company’s dog toys. The designers will ask “whether or not we think something has the ability to go viral, or how much of a photograph moment we think people are going to have with a particular toy,” says Alexis Nelson, the social media manager at BarkBox.
These suggestions can range from altering an upcoming product’s appearance to increase its performance on social media, to recommendations on what to launch next. The below image of their popular cactus toy earned 1,700 comments and 125,000+ upvotes on Reddit, which is the type of response BarkBox uses to inform future products.
“If you don't have something that's sharable about [your products], you’re going to be stuck at the will of paid marketing forever,” adds Nelson.
Articulate your brand
Establishing a strategy that defines your brand’s perspective, customer personas, and tone of voice is essential for marketplace positioning and connecting with your audience. A brand acts as a reference for what customers can expect from a company, which is particularly relevant for consumer packaged goods, with a 25% gross-margin advantage.
Setting these guidelines helps Popeyes understand how they should communicate as a brand, and where they fit into the cultural moments on social media, says Cardinali. For the fast-food chain, this entails communicating in a relaxed tone with a southern twang on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
We’re not legally allowed to call it The Greatest Sandwich Ever. But y’all know...— Popeyes Chicken (@PopeyesChicken) December 16, 2019
With their own perspective, it’s easier for Popeyes to evaluate which conversations are worth joining, what topics should be addressed, and how to communicate with certainty.
For BarkBox, humor is at the core of their messaging on social media as they aim to emulate how dogs can be silly, irreverent, and a little bit sassy at times, says Nelson. “We use our social media to articulate that we don't take ourselves super seriously,” she adds, it’s the “difference between us and a lot of other competitors in the pet market.”
Their humorous approach is best seen in their campaign around National Squirrel Appreciation Day, which is the type of social media event that typically gets ignored. The initiative was centered around squirrels taking over BarkBox’s social media accounts to seek revenge since the brand sells a range of squirrel toys.
Each social account posted squirrel centric content, while emails sent during the campaign featured zany copy and weird visuals of the squirrels taking over.
While such a campaign wouldn’t work for most companies, it aligned with the BarkBox brand because of its comedic tone and out of the box creative choices aimed at dog owners.
Most companies don’t cater their approach to a particular audience on social media and try to reach everyone - and get largely ignored in the process. You can help to avoid this outcome by developing a memorable brand through dedicating the time and resources to establishing a comprehensive strategy, then sticking to it.
Differentiate by focusing on a common concern
Communicating about a common concern is an effective way of using social media to highlight how your offerings are the better choice, though this does require a keen understanding of your customers and what’s available in the market.
For instance, Bud Light shared how their beer isn’t brewed with corn syrup in their Super Bowl ad, YouTube videos, and across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Attempting to appeal to health-conscious beer drinkers, the brand aimed to distinguish itself by calling out Miller Lite and Coors Light for using corn syrup in their beverages.
Social media is the ideal medium to promote such comparisons, as customers, competitors, and spectators can help add visibility to the conversation. Miller Lite and the National Corn Growers Association quickly responded on Twitter by pushing back on their claims, while Heineken, Samuel Adams, Bacardi, Perrier, and others added to the dialogue.
Comparing their competitors directly by appealing to a common concern led to 47,000 mentions of the Bud Light advertisement on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit. A negative, in this instance, was that the campaign did lead to legal troubles for the company, highlighting another concern to note. But the initiative was successful in increasing word-of-mouth, and communicating a unique facet of the brand’s products.
Choose a common concern to focus on by researching what your customers care about, and identifying what’s truly unique about your products as compared to others (just make sure you keep those claims within legal bounds).
Encourage fans to drive the conversation
A seemingly innocuous Facebook ad from BarkBox led commenters to compare one of the featured dog toys to an adult product, which could have hurt the brand’s reputation. Rather than hide the risque commentary or take down the ad, their team decided to leave humorous replies, owning it, rather than shying away.
By responding with humor to the unexpected feedback, their efforts generated 1,200 sales of their six and twelve-month subscriptions. Encouraging a dialogue like this is one of the best uses of social media, as a prominent conversation can introduce more potential customers to your company through their trusted network.
“We saw an opportunity to be extraordinarily silly in a way even we aren’t typically allowed to, just because of the nature of the situation,” adds Nelson. This led to more conversation from fans, a round-up of the funniest back and forth moments earning traction on Facebook, and multiple media outlets covering the incident.
BarkBox turned a potentially damaging design misstep into an opportunity to make fun of themselves, earn word-of-mouth, and increase sales by 200% above average.
There’s a variety of ways in which to encourage conversation on social media, beyond discussing a controversial topic. For example, you could consider creating an ambassador program - the Know Your Lemons Foundation, a non-profit that educates women on the signs of breast cancer, developed a program for volunteers to help spread their message.
"They act as our boots on the ground to help people connect to local health services online and offline", says, Corrine Ellsworth-Beaumont, the founder of the non-profit. After completing an online course, each volunteer is provided a kit of educational materials to help them teach family and friends about detecting breast cancer early. The kit provides a PowerPoint deck, the "Know Your Lemons" app, digital games to play with learners, and visuals depicting the signs of breast cancer.
These images, according to reporting from Mention, have been widely shared on Facebook and Twitter, leading to over ten billion impressions of the campaign.
This certification ensures that each volunteer is equipped with up-to-date information, and understands how to effectively share this information in-person and on social media. An ambassadors program like this one can make it easier for people to participate, share accurate information, and earn publicity for the organization through social media.
And while these volunteers participate in the program in order to impact people’s lives, there’s a range of ways companies can incentivize participation for more promotional purposes.
One approach is to consistently feature your customers in your social media marketing, which signals to them that their participation might result in being highlighted.
To boost the visibility for the praise of their chicken sandwich, Popeyes occasionally retweets the positive and humorous tweets from customers praising menu items.
We’re here for it. Drop your nail techs in the comments below. ???? https://t.co/bLg4rZEDYf— Popeyes Chicken (@PopeyesChicken) October 30, 2019
Including customers in your messaging matters - a study conducted by Ling Tung University in 2018 found that a person’s sense of membership on social media can have a positive effect on their brand loyalty.
People enjoy the opportunity to be recognized by their favorite companies, as being part of the discussion indicates that their content was interesting enough to share. In addition, these conversations on social media are real, natural and organic - a more convincing endorsement than a brand can provide by itself, says Cardinali.
Similarly, BarkBox publishes memes, photos, and videos on their accounts from customers, providing credit to them in the caption of each post. The #BarkBoxDay hashtag has been used over 235,000 on Instagram, and is prominently featured on the inserts in each package, and on the hang tags of every toy, in order to encourage use.
To generate discussion about your brand, don’t shy away from difficult conversations, consider an ambassadors program, and look to feature your customers whenever possible.
Integrate social media across the organization
A WhatsApp group chat is where Popeyes’ marketing, legal, and agency teams all communicate about their up-to-the-minute social media strategy, says Cardinali. Prioritizing one source of communication for all relevant stakeholders at Popeyes helps to ensure that they have an integrated approach to social media across departments.
A place for sharing their latest press coverage, noteworthy content, and relevant pop-culture moments, the chat is a space to discuss opportunities to engage on social media and keep track of the conversation. This chat is one of the reasons their team was able to generate an informed response to the infamous Chick-fil-A tweet in under three hours.
"Once we decide to engage in a conversation, creative options are produced, everyone provides the necessary approvals, and from there we can swiftly react", adds Cardinali.
A quick reaction from BarkBox is also what led to the success of their response to the dilemma over the unanticipated product comparison - the customer service team noticed repeated inappropriate comments on their Facebook ad featuring the product and quickly notified the social team for their input on next steps. Open communication between both departments helped the company quickly take advantage of the moment to achieve a positive outcome.
Brands should look to facilitate cross-departmental collaboration by outlining straight-forward communication practices and choosing easy-to-use tools. It’s these strategic choices that make each clap-back, conversation, and campaign on social media work - benefiting your business in the process.
These are some of the key elements that have helped these major brands tap into rising trends, and create cultural, impactful social media moments for their campaigns. The key lies in keeping a pulse on the latest happenings, and responding quickly when an opportunity arises. And those opportunities won't always be obvious, which is why it's worth thinking outside the box, and considering ways that each incident can be used as a brand opportunity.