In 2012 Josh Martin, Arby’s Manager of Social Media asked this question:
Arby’s was then losing the battle for the coveted millennial customer.
It had recently retired the slogan Give In To Your Grown-Up Tastes whose words proved all too prophetic. Arby’s had truly become the restaurant chain of grown-up tastes. It had lost relevance and even recognition among younger diners and was patronized by the oldest customer base in all of fast food. The company had no social media department until Martin joined in 2010, a mere 40,000 Facebook followers, and zero presence on Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, Linkedin, and YouTube.
On January 26, 2014 one tweet changed everything. Singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams showed up at the Grammy Awards wearing an oversized hat that bore a striking resemblance to the Arby’s logo. It was a high profile appearance; Williams was a nominee, a presenter, a performer, and went on to take home awards in two major categories (Best Solo Performance and Best Music Video). Arby’s Martin, who was watching the show, seized the moment tweeting Hey @Pharrell can we have our hat back? and Williams tweeted back Y’all tryna start a roast beef?
This little exchange was a big deal. Really.
A media sensation was born.
Arby’s extended the dialogue for weeks, offering a winning bid of $44,000 for the hat in a charity auction, and then exhibiting it at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. as an artifact of social media history. They grabbed headlines every step of the way including exclusives with the Washington Post and the Today Show. By the time the hat landed in Washington, the story had appeared in more than 1,400 publications and Arby’s Facebook fanbase had gone from 40,000 to 2.5 million and its Twitter following grew to more than 200,000 from a pre-hat level of fewer than 3,000. At its peak, the story garnered more than 120 million media impressions in a single day.
By the end of 2014 Arby’s was widely hailed as the king of social media.
The Wall Street Journal recognized Arby’s tweets to Pharrell Williams as the second best pop culture moment of the year, lagging only the phenomenon of the celebrity selfie. Variety Magazine said that if Academy Awards were given for marketing then Arby’s would surely take home a statuette, and the Shorty Awards, which kind of are the Oscars for short form promotional content, cited the Grammy tweets as 2014’s Best Real-Time Response and gave top honors to Arby’s social media team as Best in Food & Beverage.
Most importantly, Arby’s social media success has had a positive impact on the brand’s bottom line. The company is on a tear, opening 60 new stores this year and remodeling dozens of older ones. Same-store sales are up more than 8% for the year and some newly introduced menu items are the most successful in the chain’s history. And it’s doing this at a time when the rest of the fast food industry is slowing down as it loses sales and market share to fast-casual brands like Chipotle, Panera, and Five Guys.
Clearly social media is a powerful tool for restaurants and food brands. That’s why when something goes wrong, things can go downhill in a hurry. Read on to see what happens when good tweets go bad.