The viral nature of social media can be a blessing or a curse for brands, depending on who's in control — the brand, an employee or a customer.
For example, if an employee shares a photo of himself licking the restaurant's taco shell supply, then it's a swing and a miss.
If a brand's Facebook post gets more than 100,000 shares leading to free doughnuts for all (as was the case for a recent Krispy Kreme promotion) then it's a hit.
If a customer posts surreptitious photos of an employee walking out another customer under an umbrella on a rainy day — home run.
Here are some examples of the QSR industry's top social media campaigns and crises from 2013.
Social media hits
As teenagers continue to add new social media channels, Taco Bell is keeping pace. In the spring, the brand joined Snapchat and announced the return of its Beefy Crunch Burrito via the photo messaging app.
Wendy's incentivized customers to use its Vine and Instagram video accounts as part of its flatbread sandwich promotion. Brandon Rhoten, VP of digital and social media, told Mobile Marketer that the company noticed a lot of people talking about the flatbread offering on those two channels. "We wanted to organize some of that enthusiasm," he said.
Not to be outdone, Dunkin' Donuts also tapped into the growing video format and launched the first TV ad made entirely through Twitter's Vine site. The ad appeared during a Monday night NFL pregame show on ESPN. "Everyone is multitasking while watching TV with their phone, tablet or laptop. A lot of times, the content on their mobile device is not related to their TV shows. We want to make sure we're supporting our TV investment with social media that's [relevant]. It's our job to make sure that it's tied together to drive consumer engagement," Scott Hudler, VP of global consumer engagement at Dunkin' Brands, told Adweek.
Dunkin' Donuts also jumped into the Google+ space this week, a social media channel that hasn't had the same growth trends as many other platforms, but one that many still believe is the future (should you ever count Google out?) This week, Dunkin' Donuts will determine the winner of the #DDTopChef Recipe Contest via the brand's first-ever live Google+ Hangout.
McDonald's Mighty Wings campaign ran across the brand's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube channels, a first for the Golden Arches' social media team, according to Adweek. The chain focused on its "Who Has the Mighty Wings" story line and bounced the narrative from one social media channel to another. The Adweek story said the approach generated about 10,000 interactions within the first six hours.
This month, Burger King New Zealand took a negative (watching pre-video ads) and tried to turn it into a positive, creating variations of pre-roll ads featuring two guys making fun of pre-roll ads. According to The Drum, each spot is themed to match the video that's in the viewing cue. Burger King and its Auckland-based agency said the objective is trying to "turn the worst thing on the Internet into 'lolz.'"
A&W Restaurants brought back its mascot Rooty this year as part of a broader brand update. Rooty has been incorporated in a variety of social marketing channels, including through a "bear cam" online. A&W even attempted to create a LinkedIn account for the bear, but the professional networking site took down his profile because he wasn't "real." A&W promptly responded with a social media campaign using the hashtag #RootyIsReal.
Leveraging their standard online sites for two creative campaigns this year were Bojangles and Subway.
Bojangles' launched TailgateEverything.com, a website that lists more than 50 alternative tailgating ideas using the brand's signature menu items. For example, the "How to Tailgate Romance" section suggests adding the brand's heart-shaped biscuits, using the brand's Sweetea as a perfume and using a Bojangles' wedding registry. The website features photos, videos, tips, games and more.
Subway is ensuring its brand remains in good hands through its online contest, Build Your Own Virtual Subway Global Challenge. The business simulation game enables players to learn about business by building a virtual Subway restaurant and compete globally by driving customers into their "restaurants" through social media while also completing a series of challenges.
Social media/PR crises
Last year, the restaurant industry dominated the "PR crisis" list thanks to a few rogue employees who may have underestimated the ubiquitous nature of social sharing (remember McDonald's McDStories Twitter campaign that backfired? Or the Burger King employee who posted a photo of himself standing in two tubs of lettuce?)
There was no shortage of those examples this year either. Here are five of them:
Kicking things off in February was a KFC employee in Tennessee who posted a photo of herself licking a plate of mashed potatoes. She was promptly dismissed and her fellow employees at that particular restaurant had to be retrained.
In June, Taco Bell fired an employee who was photographed licking a stack of taco shells. In a statement, the company said "We implore the impressions this has caused our customers, fans, franchisees and team members." The shells were reportedly used for a training exercise and were "in the process of being thrown out." That wasn't enough to save the shell licker's job, however.
Also in June, Wendy's cut an employee loose after a photo went viral showing him eating Frosty ice cream directly from the dispenser. Wendy's even tweeted about the incident, calling it "unacceptable."
Taking things a bit further, the headline "Subway employee puts his penis on sandwich bread" actually made the news this July. Not only that, but the employee took a photo of the incident and posted it to Instagram. He later claimed the "prank" was done at home, not at a Subway restaurant. The chain said the employee's actions were "not representative of Subway Sandwich Artists."
Most recently, Sonic Drive-In issued an apology this month after a restaurant in Belton, Mo., changed its exterior sign to read: "KC Chiefs will scalp the Redskins. Feed them whiskey. Send 2 reservation." A passerby posted a photo of the sign on Twitter and tempers (and accusations of racism) flared. The company's VP of PR said the remarks were "wrong, offensive and unacceptable."
But while QSR brands are typically dragged over the coals for photos that are posted by someone besides their social media team, one instance this year "restored faith in humanity," according to the original sharer. A photo of a Wendy's employee who had removed an umbrella from a table outside to walk an elderly customer to his car in the rain landed on Imgur, then Reddit, then numerous other social sites. Proof that not all virality is bad virality.
Read more about social media marketing.
Photo from Imgur.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.