Social Media: Greatest Hits and Flops

There is no doubt that social media marketing is one of the greatest advertising tools of the modern age. You can create an online presence, advertise, and interact with your customers, all for free. That visibility can make your brand a viral sensation – in a positive or negative manner. Let’s look at some of the foodservice industry’s greatest hits and flops on social media to see what can be learned from each one.

FLOP: Subway’s Footlong Scandal

11-inch sandwich

It started rather simply: in 2013, an Australian teen posted a photo of a Subway sandwich that was eleven inches long rather than the advertised 12. One would think that this could be easily remedied with an apology and coupon, but the nature of social media allowed the photo to spread like wildfire, sparking international outrage almost instantly. This is where Subway dropped the ball.

“With regards to the size of the bread and calling it a footlong,’SUBWAY FOOTLONG’ is a registered trademark as a descriptive name for the sub sold in Subway Restaurants and not intended to be a measurement of length.”

To be fair, this was part of a longer statement that did acknowledge that the bread was not baked to their standards, but there was also no apology issued. Additionally, the company’s disclaimer that the name is not meant to indicate an actual length directly contradicted an advertising campaign from 2008 that showed the measurement of ‘one foot’ repeatedly. This uproar had an expensive outcome for Subway. A week after the photo was posted, a lawsuit was filed, which was just settled recently, with Subway paying $530,000 to the attorneys and plaintiffs involved.

The lesson here? Refrain from making excuses when criticized, and have a plan for responding to social media criticism so you can act quickly when you need to.

HIT: Arby’s Masters Reactive Marketing

Reactive marketing is when you post something that somehow links your brand to something that’s trending in news or social media, and Arby’s has become the master of it. In 2014, Pharrell Williams attended the Grammy Awards wearing a large hat not unlike the one in the Arby’s logo. The fast food restaurant saw the opportunity and took it.

"Pharrell, can we have our hat back?"

The post garnered over 75,000 retweets by the next morning and earned responses from Pepsi, Hyundai, and Pharrell himself, but the publicity didn’t end there. When Pharrell put the hat up for auction for charity, Arby’s jumped in and purchased it for over $44,000, netting more positive press. The next year, Arby’s hit it big again by joking with Jon Stewart when he announced he was leaving the Daily Show. Since Stewart spent a lot of time making fun of Arby’s on his show, the chain decided to take it in good humor with a funny tweet followed by a send-off ad on Stewart’s last night.

A word of caution, though. A lot of reactive social media marketing is done based on trending tags, but those can be easy to misinterpret. DiGiorno Pizza learned that the hard way, when they made a lighthearted post with a tag that was being used to spread awareness of domestic abuse. Social media does move quickly, but always take the time to research trends before jumping on a bandwagon.

FLOP: Crowdsourcing Backfires for McDonald’s

Crowdsourcing has become a popular way to improve a brand’s reach on social media – this can include question and answer sessions, asking customers to post photos using a certain hashtag, or soliciting stories from followers. Sometimes this works out, but it’s definitely one of the riskier ways to promote on social media, which McDonald’s discovered in 2012. Their #McDStories hashtag was meant to encourage customers to share positive stories, but they didn’t bank on their detractors taking the campaign and running with it.

McDonald’s acted quickly, pulling the social media marketing campaign within two hours of starting it, but that didn’t stop people from using the hashtag. While the company may have minimized the damage, the negative legacy lives on: four years later, the hashtag is still used on Twitter occasionally by customers expressing displeasure.

If you’re considering a crowdsourcing campaign, consider the campaign from the angle of your worst critic, and more importantly, be realistic about how many critics there will be. If you have a mostly positive and very interactive customer base, a few negative remarks may not detract from your message, but if the negative outweighs the positive, you’re in trouble.

HIT: Hidden Valley Inspires

People love when a business supports a good cause, and it’s even better when that cause is relevant to your business. Hidden Valley struck gold when they began their #tastenotwaste campaign, encouraging America to look beyond the exterior of less-than-perfect vegetables to minimize food waste. The social media marketing campaign earned them not only over 60 million mentions in media, but also a spot in the finals of the Food and Beverage category of the Shorty Awards, an annual award that recognizes social media content creators across a range of categories.

Hidden Valley social media marketing Instagram post

Supporting a cause can generate a lot of positive press. If you run a small business, you may want to consider partnering with a local charity. You could even go as far as Hidden Valley did, and offer to donate a certain amount of money to a cause for each like, retweet, or hashtag used.

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.

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