“Yum. Chocolate so fake, it couldn’t kill a dog and cream so fake, vegans can eat it. Team Hydrox, forever!” – Wendy’s TikTok, on Oreos.
You don’t have to go far to find marketing disasters in the world of fast food, or really, food and drink more broadly. Marketers in the industry are so desperate to have their companies noticed that they force themselves into realms where marketers in less competitive industries wouldn’t dare go, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes catastrophically.
Wedding registry at a pizza joint? Domino’s did it.
Build your own metaverse? Chipotle and McDonald’s did it.
Endless chaotic commercials dating back to at least the 1980s? Here’s a supercut.
But in the world of fast food, one sassy redhead has taken chaos to a new level. So even if you somehow missed the title of this article and the first stretch of text and video, you’d probably still know I’m talking about Wendy’s.
Good Lord, Wendy’s online. With an uncanny knack for witty clapbacks and surprisingly funny shitposts, Wendy’s has become a force to be reckoned with online. All in all, not bad for a company that was once known for giving customers the finger.
But you know what I’m curious about? It’s simple, really. Is Wendy’s actually successful on social media? How would we know?
Armed with nothing more than insatiable curiosity and an appetite for salty humor, in this post, we’re going to take a deep dive into the world of Wendy’s social media.
What is Wendy’s doing on social media?
The modern social media strategy we see Wendy’s leaning so hard into dates back to about 2017. In particular, Wendy’s was quickly building a reputation for roasting other brands on Twitter, demonstrating a canny understanding that Twitter’s primary purpose is to be mean to people. To this day, on the desiccated remains of that social media network, they have 3.9 million followers.
Wendy’s has since expanded its strategy to a variety of platforms. On Instagram, they post memes that could only be described as “Middle Class Fancy” having a nervous breakdown.
On TikTok, Wendy’s mascot is basically a Vtuber avatar that roasts other brands.
And on Facebook, Wendy’s is…pretending to be a baby boomer?
The content Wendy’s is putting out now is tailored to each platform. But what ties them together into a consistent brand image is a sense of irreverence, a freewheeling spirit, and what feels like a lack of corporate oversight which you see with so many other brands. (Be assured, though, this is very much a corporate and calculated effort, no matter what anyone says.)
Why does this work? I won’t explain the jokes since that’s a fool’s errand. Suffice it to say that Wendy’s posts resemble, at least reasonably closely, something that someone in their teens or twenties might post.
Before we go any further, I want to say – it’s tough to measure whether or not a social media strategy run by another company is successful. To really know the answer, we would need access to privileged inside information that would help us link sales data to posts on social media.
Can we even measure social media success for Wendy’s?
If you’re looking for certainty, the answer is simply no. There’s no clear evidence saying that “Wendy’s social media accounts have led to a $100 million increase in revenue over five years.” That data is not around, or at least it’s not public.
But if you look at the circumstantial evidence, it sure seems like Wendy’s is doing well. First, Wendy’s has been doing this since at least 2017. The idea of a fast food chain with tight margins letting something ineffective go on for this long is, while possible, really unlikely. Another good sign is that they have many imitators, including Denny’s, Pop-Tarts, and Moon Pie.
Then if you look at the sales figures online, it looks like 2017 – when they started this strategy – was a low point for the company. Since then, it’s been on the way up. Whether that’s the result of innovative marketing or simply reverting to the mean is an open question.
But personally, I think it’s working. Which only begs the question – why does Wendy’s choose to advertise this way in the first place? Why does this seem to work?
To answer that, we need to look at how the fast food industry operates.
How to win big in the world of fast food
The $570 billion global industry of fast food is, in some ways, a remarkably simple one to explain. Despite having “food” in the name, fast food has never been about taste, and it isn’t even about calories, though it’s very good at supplying the latter in bulk.
Fast food franchises make their customers but a single, simple promise: “We’ll give you OK food, really quickly.”
Convenience is the god of this industry. Locations must be chosen nearby highways and places with high foot traffic. Food must be cooked really quickly and provided really cheaply. The entire supply chain must be optimized to deliver staple items really quickly, to a ton of locations, at unbeatable prices.
The menu, truly, is secondary. Sure, McDonald’s has its Big Mac, Burger King its Whopper, and Wendy’s its Baconator, but – when push comes to shove – the vast majority of customers will switch fast food joints if even slightly inconvenienced by going to their preferred one.
Most fast food locations are run as franchises, which means Dairy Queen or KFC Corporate can’t really control the taste of the burgers or the friendliness of the staff. When it comes to generating revenue, there are only two levers: menu and branding. Even the menu is set by customers’ tastes and the cost of ingredients.
But branding? That’s where things start to get really interesting. If customers have a tendency to treat all fast food like it’s the same, good branding is the only thing that can make a meaningful difference in someone’s purchasing decision.
Why branding matters so much in fast food
So often on this blog, we talk about product-market fit. The idea, which we so often see play out in real life, is that if you make a really excellent product that fits someone’s desires, then your business stands a great chance of being a marketing success.
But that principle tends to fall apart like an overloaded burger in the world of fast food. The fast-food industry is a world of sharp elbows and toasted buns. Fast food joints are so incredibly thirsty for your attention that it pushes them into really avant-garde marketing territory. A chaotic brand presence makes a brand stand out like a neon sign in the night, and sometimes, that’s all it takes to make the sale when someone has to choose between turning left for Wendy’s and turning right for Hardee’s.
Once a brand gathers up enough raw attention, then its brand image and personality need to shine through. Brands have to do something interesting to be remembered. This is the secret sauce. Fast food joints that do this right – like Wendy’s – are the life of the party.
Of course, branding isn’t all smoke and mirrors. The food has to be at least good enough to convince people they’re not making a terrible life decision (like Taco Bell). But again, relative to getting attention and stoking interest, this is a low bar to clear.
When all these factors are in place, fast food brands can seed customers’ minds with calls to action that can be activated – like deep undercover agents – at any time. They just have to be weird enough to be memorable, like offering free food because “Mercury is in retrograde.”
How to know you’re doing OK on social media
When you think about what causes people to buy fast food and what causes them to choose one chain over another, it helps shed some light on what a successful social media strategy looks like. After all, getting likes, upvotes, or impressions doesn’t really impact the bottom line directly – all these factors must build toward something larger!
So let’s say you’ve crafted the perfect image, unleashed a barrage of witty tweets, and possibly even engaged in a meme war or two. But how do you know if you’re actually making a splash? There are a bunch of different measures you can look at.
Reach, impressions, and brand awareness. All of these different measures basically amount to the same thing – people knowing you exist. If your reach is on the rise and more people remember your name, that’s a big win! Recognition, trust, and familiarity can help push people toward your restaurant when they’re on the road and making a quick decision.
Engagement. This is the digital equivalent of a rapturous round of applause. If your audience is commenting, liking, and sharing your content, then there’s a good chance that something is connecting. Alone, this doesn’t mean you’re going to get sales, and it’s very easy to get bad attention online. Still, because fast food is so crowded and competitive, getting that little bit of extra attention really can make a huge difference. Engagement is how you dramatically extend your reach far beyond the initial viewers.
Conversions. Digital fanfare means nothing if it doesn’t translate to fresh, never frozen cash. So if you run a social media campaign and you find that money is rolling in, that’s a good sign that you need to keep doing whatever you did!
Surprised how subjective this all is? You wouldn’t be alone. It’s really tough to measure ROI on social media efforts. That’s why many brands don’t bother with social media or do the bare minimum.
Indeed, for some brands, it’s OK to skip out on social media. Fast food’s not one of them. To illustrate my point, imagine a hypothetical here. Imagine if Wendy’s just stopped using social media one day. These days, TV and radio don’t reach as many people as they used to. Sure, they would get by on brand recognition and highway signs for a while, but how many years do you think the company would last before it ultimately folded?
5? 10? 20?
When you imagine this hypothetical and then compare it to the real world and see that Wendy’s sales figures have been rising since its social media glow-up in 2017, it’s not hard to argue that Wendy’s is definitely doing OK in terms of conversions by way of increasing its online reach and engagement.
How Wendy’s, and others, can measure success on social media
Need a way to try to standardize the inherently subjective nature of social media success? I’ve made a list of five questions myself that you – regardless of industry – can ask yourself that would make even Wendy herself proud.
OK, that’s a stretch. She would probably roast me relentlessly. But I’ll share them anyway.
1. Are you able to draw a lot of attention cheaply?
If you’re reeling in the likes, retweets, and comments for the cost of a single combo meal, then you, my friend, are a social media maestro.
2. Are you staying top of mind to increase the odds of an impulse purchase?
When asked to name brands in a certain category, the list that customers rattle off is called “awareness set.” You have to make it here in order to get into the “consideration set” where the brands that a customer will seriously consider purchasing reside. If your social media is pushing your brand at least into the awareness set, then you’re accomplishing something!
3. Are you making interesting content that gets shared organically?
People don’t share unless they care. Social media algorithms know this – it’s the one constant. If people don’t share your content with their friends, then it’s probably not that interesting, and you’re not going to be reaching many people.
The good thing, though, is that if your content is getting shared or liked, that’s a great sign that you’re onto something! If what you’re saying is even slightly related to your brand or its products, then that means you have a good chance of running successful promotions.
4. Are you effectively driving sales with your promotions?
Sales are the true measure of success. They are the crucible in which all ideas must be tested. If your social media efforts don’t drive customers, then they’re not working.
That means that if you’re not sure if your social media is doing anything for you, run an off-the-wall promotion like what Wendy’s did with their “Mercury in retrograde” offer. If you do this and you end up driving people to your business, then your social media really is a powerful tool, and your audience is engaged. If you can’t manage this, then you might just be accumulating followers for its own sake.
5. Are you doing all this without causing PR meltdowns?
It is hideously easy to make people mad on social media. In fact, it’s remarkable how uncontroversial Wendy’s has been despite its edgy approach.
If you can increase your public visibility and get shared without people trying to burn your company to the ground, then you’re definitely winning! It’s all too easy to step on virtual landmines these days.
Trying to know for sure if Wendy’s social media strategy is a winner is hard to do when you’re on the outside of the drive-thru window. But if I had to hazard a guess, Wendy’s social media strategy, as unhinged as it may appear, is likely a roaring success.
In the grease-and-griddle arms race that is fast food advertising, the most important thing to do is capture attention and stay on prospective customers’ minds. Since we live in an age of social media and viral videos, that means creating content that people want to share with their friends. And while Wendy’s is known for its saucy online persona, you can bet that they’ve been studiously avoiding getting canceled in the process.
The history of fast food is littered with bizarre commercials and chaotic PR stunts. When speed, convenience, and selling points matter more than the menu, branding is the only truly large lever that Corporate can pull to lift its franchises up.
In the hands of lesser marketers, Wendy’s could be the redheaded stepchild among its peers, overshadowed by McDonald’s and Burger King. But we don’t live in that world – we live in a world where Wendy’s can roast Home Depot online and get 300,000 views in the process.
Makes you want a Baconator, doesn’t it?