Inside the Cannes Lion-winning #NuggsForCarter campaign with Wendy's Liliana Esposito

Wendy's chief communications officer chats with PRWeek's Frank Washkuch about taking a hands-off approach to a social media phenomenon and why an irreverent Twitter account is in the burger chain's DNA.

It’s 9 a.m. on Thursday morning. As most employees are settling in for the day, Liliana Esposito, the top communications executive at Wendy’s, is shrugging off her brand’s latest social media quarrel. The previous afternoon, Wendy’s got in a spat on Twitter with the handle for the Oakland Athletics, and by most accounts, Wendy’s lost in a rout.

To recap, in a back and forth that perfectly illustrates the often absurd world of social media marketing in 2017, Wendy’s took a pot shot at the Golden State Warriors, the A’s Bay Area neighbor, for their embarrassing loss in the 2016 NBA Finals. Then a Twitter user dared the burger chain and the professional baseball club to fight. They did. And Wendy’s came out on the wrong side of a joke about "runs" — specifically whether its food gives them to customers.

Esposito doesn’t seem alarmed. Wendy’s is playing the long game on social media, and earlier this spring, it teamed up with a good-natured Nevada high schooler to win one of the biggest social media prizes there is.

The not-so-serious nature that made it possible is in line with the brand’s attitude dating back to when it was personified by its grandfatherly founder in commercials instead of social media ribbing, notes Esposito.

"What we aim for is a tone that is playful. That’s at the heart of the Wendy’s brand and has been since Dave Thomas founded the brand in 1969, which is to poke some fun at the conventional way of doing things," she says. "Whether that’s another brand or a common practice in the industry, we try to do that in a way that’s playful and charming, but gets our message across that we believe very strongly in our way of doing things."

Like many other communications executives, Esposito spends her early mornings working up a sweat at the gym and scanning headlines for fires that need to be put out — whether social media fights or real-world issues. However, unlike most of her peers, she’s also keeping an eye on a quality assurance team that comprises half her staff and responding to emails from the franchisees that own the lion’s share of Wendy’s U.S. locations. For instance, franchise owners could be reaching out about a crisis at an individual location or a food-quality issue. 

She sees the social media age as a good fit for the Wendy’s brand, giving it an opportunity to stand out from the crowded landscape of burger joints and fast-casual artery-cloggers. Esposito contends the company’s mission, laid out by Thomas in the late 1960s, is not outdated in the age of Instagram food culture. Instead, she believes it is a route to reach today’s millennials, who are demanding higher-quality ingredients and authenticity from the restaurants they visit.

"Wendy’s was founded in 1969 on the idea the traditional fast-food experience could be done better: the food could be better quality, the experience could be less institutional and more focused on hospitality, and it could still be done in a convenient and affordable way," she explains. "All of that is really our roots, and where we’re having success and where the brand is hitting its stride is rediscovering and reclaiming that quality mantle within the quick-service space."

To that end, Wendy’s marketing programs are emphasizing its core items — burgers, salads, and chicken sandwiches — instead of deals or limited-time offers. Earlier this year, the brand invested in raising the quality of its chickens, focusing on reducing their size to create a juicier and tenderer product. It is also emphasizing its never frozen burgers, even beefing with industry heavyweight McDonald’s about meat quality. Esposito contends the concept of freshness has a "halo effect" benefiting the brand at large, meaning a spot featuring a mouthwatering salad makes the whole menu look better, even if the viewer isn’t specifically a fan of greens for lunch or dinner.

To ensure Wendy’s corporate reputation doesn’t go stale, Esposito splits her time among traditional communications, government relations, and quality assurance, which has a dedicated team overseeing food safety and quality standards for suppliers and the brand’s 6,500 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. Franchises make up 95% of the locations. Each franchise can be owned by dozens of organizations.

The staff at the company’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, is leaner than those of many competitors. 

Reporting to CEO and president Todd Penegor, Esposito oversees a team of 30 staffers, split between traditional communicators and quality assurance employees, and is joined by nine other executives on the company’s C-level leadership team. She also heads up internal communications, while CFO Gunther Plosch manages the company’s investor relations.

The communications staff runs what Esposito calls "corporate social media," including the brand’s LinkedIn account and company blog called the Square Deal, which is named for the unusual shape of the chain’s burgers. The latter platform is especially useful for going beyond snark and explaining complicated issues that can’t be summed up in a 140-character tweet.

Case in point: The company recently used the blog to manage blowback after Penegor said on the company’s Q1 earnings call that Wendy’s is planning to pilot self-service kiosks at thousands of its restaurants. Immediately accused of selling out American workers to give customers a Jetsons-like experience, the company used the blog to more eloquently explain its position: that ordering touchscreens can make the dining experience easier for both diners and staff. It also uses the blog to communicate on topics such as healthy eating, family life, its employees, and adoption.

Esposito’s team works with longtime PR agency partner Ketchum on communications, as well as Sard Verbinnen & Co. on some financial issues. VML, which started as Wendy’s digital agency, is its lead marketing shop, while Bravo works on Hispanic marketing, and MediaVest covers media buying.

Social media falls under Wendy’s marketing group, but it’s closely meshed with communications. While the digital group within the marketing unit technically has ownership of social media, that team is "grounded in what is the appropriate brand voice for Wendy’s." In other words, no politics, no bullying or profanity, and don’t be too mean to other brands or users.

However, that doesn’t mean the social media team is burdened by layer upon layer of approvals, Esposito says. "They have a tremendous amount of social license, and we empower them a lot because they have earned this trust," she explains. "They know what the brand voice is, and they know what the guardrails are, so they engage in a friendly manner with our fans."

So when Carter Wilkerson, a well-meaning high school student from Nevada, asked the brand’s Twitter account how many retweets it would take to earn a year’s worth of free chicken nuggets, its community managers dared him to shoot for the absurd mark of 18 million — or nearly six times the then-record held by Ellen DeGeneres for her star-studded Academy Awards selfie.

Within two days, Wendy’s knew it had a bona fide social media phenomenon on its hands when he had already received a million retweets. Despite the attention, the brand’s strategy was largely to stay hands off, relying on its community managers’ gut instincts instead of a playbook to let the craze snowball on its own.

"I don’t think it’s an area where you can put a hard-and-fast rule of when this happens, you do this, and when that happens, you say that," Esposito contends. "Clearly there are guardrails for what is appropriate for the brand, tone, and voice we want to have with our engagements, whether a playful topic such as this or a more serious topic."

Behind the scenes, earned media also played a role in bringing #NuggsForCarter into the mainstream consciousness. Wendy’s communications team helped to secure mentions on Today and Ellen, and even sent a brand staffer to ensure Wilkerson’s family felt comfortable during the daytime talk-show appearance. Ketchum helped monitor the craze on an hour-by-hour basis.

Wendy’s biggest question was when it would reward Wilkerson with a year’s worth of nuggets, even though he fell well short of the moonshot 18 million mark. It decided the magic moment would be when the student broke a different barrier: DeGeneres’ record for the most retweets.

"We didn’t want to make that announcement too early and lose that momentum," Esposito explains. "At the same time, these things run their course, and there’s not an unlimited amount of public attention."

In the end, Wendy’s was right on time. The campaign was not just a win for Wilkerson, whose wallet is heavier with a special edition gift card entitling him to 365 days’ worth of chicken nuggets, but also Wendy’s social media team, whose campaign was mentioned in the same breath as other social standouts such as Oreo’s Dunk in the Dark push during the Super Bowl XLVII blackout.

In terms of real-world impact, the biggest beneficiary was the cause nearest to the brand’s heart ¾ adoption for children in foster care ¾ as Wendy’s donated $100,000 in Wilkerson’s name to the Dave Thomas Foundation.

"We quickly connected with Carter. He is a great kid from a great family and loves Wendy’s chicken nuggets, so we knew this was a good match and could be some fun," says Penegor, via email. "The team jumped right on it and found great opportunities to amplify the message and to help #NuggsForCarter become the most retweeted of all time. The competition with Ellen was the right forum, and it took off from there."

But there’s a catch: just like Dunk in the Dark, #NuggsForCarter will surely spawn several imitators, none of which are likely to be as good or generate the positive social impact as the original, especially without the authenticity created by Wendy’s off-beat social media persona.

"They’ve been doing it for years. They have an attitude that’s irreverent, fun, and goofy, and most of their ads reflect that," says consultant Jeremy Pepper. "There are going to be a bunch of copycats because other companies are going to want to do the same thing, but won’t be as smart or as thoughtful."

Yet will the fleeting social media buzz actually pay off in real dollars and cents for Wendy’s? While the company hadn’t reported its Q2 earnings as of press time, the indicators were leaning in the right direction, Esposito says. The brand’s Twitter engagement was up 375% year-over-year during the #NuggsForCarter phenomenon, which came at the end of a busy stretch for the brand that included its first Super Bowl ad and social media jousts with accounts large (McDonald’s) and small (a fan who doubted the existence of refrigerators). The Twitter account for the Dave Thomas Foundation also saw a 10% increase in engagement during the craze.

Most promising for Wendy’s: of the 28 brand-health metrics it tracks, 21 are trending positively, a marked improvement from a few years ago when none were, notes Esposito.

"When we see them moving in the right direction, it tells us we are doing something right," she explains. "Ultimately, there is a bridge between ‘Do I think this brand is cool?’ and ‘That’s a restaurant I want to go to.’"

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