The American fast food industry is in a state of perpetual change, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Whether we’re hype on the antibiotic-free chicken in our burrito bowls from Chipotle, or we’re taking a more hands-on approach and trying out that free week of Blue Apron, options for the American consumer are plentiful.
Even if health isn’t a primary concern, we have more menu selections now than any other time in history. You can grab a classic hard shell from Taco Bell or a soft-shell with slow-cooked brisket from Qdoba. You can opt for a Double-Double Animal Style from In-N-Out, or dig into a classic Shack Burger from Shake Shack. And outside the burger-taco world, there are fast food joints cooking up sushi, pizza, chicken, steak, veggies and everything else our taste buds have a hankering for.
Marketing is more important to fast food brands now than chili cheese fries were 50 years ago, and they were a big goddamn deal.
In a world where competition is high and the market is changing, fast food joints – even the big dogs – continuously have to reinvent and re-introduce themselves to an ever-changing demographic of consumers. Cross-brand mashups, quirky social media messaging, loyalty driving campaigns, wild menu items: fast food marketing is on the come up. If you haven’t already, it’s time to start paying attention. We've rounded up some of the biggest campaigns in fast food marketing:
Living Comfortably in “Weird Twitter” (Denny’s)
When it comes to innovative fast food marketing, Denny’s is leaps and bounds ahead of its competition. Billed as a “fast casual” family restaurant chain famous for its pancakes and egg platters, Denny’s became a true innovator in the industry’s marketing space.
Case in point? Its social media strategy. In a world where brands were using their social media equity for traditional boring-ass marketing messaging, Denny’s decided to try something weird and interesting – and it worked.
With Tumblr, the company paid attention to the topics, trends and content popular with the platform’s audience. Rather than risk catching a heaping helping of shit for just posting discount codes and pictures of food, it used Tumblr. In the end, the offbeat approach paid off big. In just the past year, the company has seen over 110 million impressions, driven a 20 percent increase in overall following and made just over 1,000 posts.
It took a similar approach to Twitter. Noticing a trend toward a weird Tumblr-like feel on the social platform, Denny’s got in on the action there and, again, found success. Memes, silly/ridiculous tweets, witty and whimsical observations: it all worked, and worked well. There, in the last year, it made just 529 tweets, but saw over 3.7 million profile visits and received almost 136 million impressions from its content.
On Instagram, the approach, and the results, were similar. In the last year, it saw a 434 percent growth in followers and gained over 36 million impressions.
Did an 18-year-old Tumblr kid hijack its social, or is it the careful and calculated work of a team of 20 different writers and creative content strategists? I don’t know, and given the results, I don’t care.
“Food With Integrity” (Chipotle)
Before everyone starts trashing Chipotle for the E. coli and salmonella stuff, let me explain that this brand earned a special place on this list because it's the perfect example of fast food success in the face of the clean foods movement.
As the story goes, in 1999, Chipotle Founder Steve Ells was trying to improve the taste of his company’s pork, and decided to go check out the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations where they company was getting its meat. Horrified by the conditions, it was then and there that he decided Chipotle would source meat only from open-range suppliers.
Chipotle made the conscious decision to carry more ethically and healthily sourced foods, and consequently had to raise its prices. Despite the increases in price, Chipotle grew from 16 restaurants in 1998 to over 500 by the end of 2005, due largely in part to the now-legendary “Food With Integrity” campaign built up around the decision (and probably because people just love a good burrito bowl).
By 2015, the restaurant had more than 2,000 locations and employed over 45,000 across the U.S., Canada, the UK, France and Germany.
“The Secret Menu” (Unknown)
No one is willing to claim the first-ever “secret menu,” but many attribute it to famous American burger chain In-N-Out. Far as anyone can tell, its secret menu popped up all the way back in the 1970s with items like the Animal Style Burger, a delicious cheeseburger concoction with the company’s famous sauce (which is honestly just Thousand Island salad dressing).
It has since grown to over a dozen items, including the 3x3, 4x4, the Protein Style burger, the Grilled Cheese and more. The company embraces its secret menu selections so much that it even has a “not-so-secret menu” section on its website.
Starbucks is another brand that has used an extensive “secret menu” to entice customer engagement and loyalty. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated just to Starbucks secret menu items like the Cotton Candy Frappuccino, the Twix Frappuccino and my personal favorite, the S’Mores Frappuccino.
Observing the success of In-N-Out and Starbucks, most fast food restaurants have developed their own secret menus over the last few years, including Chic-fil-A, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chipotle and just about everybody else.
When push comes to shove, secret menus are good for business.
#LoveAndTacosContest (Taco Bell)
When I said above that fast food companies are testing out some pretty wild ideas in order to keep their branding fresh, I wasn’t bullshitting. Taco Bell announced a couple weeks back that it’ll be officiating weddings out of flagship store in Las Vegas.
Why? Well, why the hell not, you square? Some people just love Taco Bell that much.
Actually, in a press release about the announcement, Taco Bell’s Chief Marketing Officer Marisa Thalberg explained, “From sauce packet proposals to couples catering their wedding parties and after parties with Taco Bell, we have known for years that some of our most creative fans had to incorporating Taco Bell into this momentous occasion.”
In order to help raise awareness and bolster excitement for the new Wedding Package, which will cost $600 and include a Taco Bell garter, bow tie, sauce packet wedding bouquet, “Just Married” T-shirts, Taco Bell champagne flutes and an actual Cinnabon Delights wedding cake, the taco joint launched an accompanying social contest called “#LoveAndTacosContest.”
Entrants were required to post a photo or 30-second video on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag and sharing their “Taco Bell love story.” It ran for just 12 days, from February 14 through February 26, and if you think for one second that it didn’t get literally hundreds of hashtagged entries (over 400 on Instagram alone), you are dead wrong.
As it happens, people really love Taco Bell. Like, really really really.
This certainly isn’t the first time a fast food company has used a tactic like this in order to draw headlines and social engagement, but this one is pretty next level. I spoke via email to Alec Boyle, one of Taco Bell’s PR folks, and he said the company was very excited to be able to start making these dreams come true.
So, uh, yup.
“The Grand Slams” in Real Time (Denny’s)
I know, I know. I really didn’t want to mention the same brand twice in one story, but when you’re doing it right, exceptions can be made. The Grand Slams are an idea that originated at Denny’s in 2014. Essentially, it’s a Denny’s branded series of short cartoons that star “America’s favorite breakfast sweethearts” (at least, that’s what they’re billed as on The Grand Slams’ website— yes, they have a website): Bacon, Sausage, Pancake and Egg. And that’s not even the craziest part.
Denny’s fans love it. So much so that when the Denny’s team was trying to figure out how to utilize the new Facebook Live feature, it decided a live animated Q&A with The Grand Slams star Pancake would be perfect.
According to Scott Moody, an Account Supervisor at Erwin Penland, Denny’s agency of record, the success of the event was massive. The Facebook Live feeds got over 10,000 total “live” views in a roughly half-hour session. It saw 13,000 engagements for the video and led to the giving away of over 1,500 pieces of swag (including Pancake leggings, socks, shirts and even Vanilla-scented lip balm) to fans in 48 U.S. states.
Currently, there are 24 episodes of The Grand Slams, and the series has done so well for the brand that it's even looking into other avenues of distribution for it.
Give The People What They Want: All-Day Breakfast (McDonald’s)
If you’re a fan of McDonald’s (and even if you’re not, really), you’d probably be inclined to agree with me that McDonald’s breakfast is the best part of their entire menu. Like, who honestly needs to eat 20 chicken nuggets in one sitting?
Anyway, people begged McDonald’s for years to keep breakfast running longer than 10.30 a.m. to no avail. Consumers begged and begged across social, email — some dick probably even wrote them an awkward angry letter or two — but those damn McFascists kept all those McGriddles to themselves.
Finally, in 2015, after more than a couple bad revenue revenues, extensive market research and angry tweet reading, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook decided it was finally time to implement All-Day Breakfast.
The strategy started out strong. A study by NPD Group in the first couple of months following the announcement revealed people were coming back to the fast food giant in droves. Preliminary statistics showed that over a third of McDonald’s customers who bought into the new strategy hadn’t been to a McDonald’s in at least a month prior to their visit. It also demonstrated people were spending more money per order, noting that 61 percent of the customers who ordered breakfast items also ordered lunch items.
The immediate jolt in sales resulted in a 5.7 percent boost revenue, which wound up being the best quarterly report the company had in almost four years.
Even though the plan turned business around for the suffering brand, it didn’t do so at the rate which analysts anticipated. And so, back in July, McDonald’s launched All-Day Breakfast 2.0, which expanded the menu and added bigger, more widespread options.
While the campaign hasn’t worked quite as well as the folks at McDonald’s had originally hoped, there’s no denying that it is directly responsible for the brand’s turn around over the last year.
Now check out these weird soda spinoffs from the last few years.