They’re super-creative, innovative and always being talked about on social media. Wendy’s, Burger King, IHOP and other fast-food and fast-casual restaurants are eating the lunch of other brand categories.
“They are doing some of the best creative work I’ve seen in a very long time,” asserts Loretta Markevics, chief strategy and creative officer of DeVries Global. “When a category starts to see so much great work, it elevates everyone in it. The heat of competition forces everyone to up their game and work harder at creating content that gains attention.”
There’s more than anecdotal evidence that quick-service restaurants have ascended to the top of the food chain, creatively speaking. The category has also racked up an impressive awards haul in the past two years.
At the 2019 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Wendy’s Keeping Fortnite Fresh won a Social & Influencer Grand Prix, including a PR credit for Ketchum. It featured a Wendy-like redhead female character on the popular multiplayer game Fortnite destroying freezers of frozen patties to be replaced with fresh-beef-making facilities.
Rival Burger King’s Whopper Detour innovation won the Mobile Grand Prix and Direct Grand Prix. It used geofencing to redirect their app users within 600 feet of a McDonald’s to the nearest Burger King for a one-cent Whopper.
Brands in fast-casual dining have also cleaned up on the awards show circuit, with IHOP winning a Silver Lion for its temporary letter flip — the “P” to “b” — to promote its burgers. Droga 5 and DeVries were agencies on the campaign. While the stunt had detractors at launch, it’s results were convincing.
Some critics argue that it’s easy for brands in this category to be creative, and marketers say there’s some truth to that.
“The food is fun, inventive and viewed as a little indulgent, and so the category lends itself to more creative comms,” concurs IHOP SVP and CMO Brad Haley. “This is a fun, high-interest category for a lot of guests and not a serious thing like financial institutions or a lower-interest category like some consumer packaged goods products. There is some inherent fun to the food.”
He argues that the style is catching on in other categories.
“If you look at really old CPG brands like Tide and its recent Super Bowl work, you can see they are recognizing the value of being more fun and engaging in their creative,” Haley says. “They are trying to carve out their piece of popular culture and lighten up a bit, which I think is long overdue.”
Some fast-food brands make their witty social media banter look effortless. In reality, that tone is the result of online relationships that have been built over time, say experts at fast-food joints.
A turning point for McDonald’s was its 2015 launch of all-day breakfast, says Molly McKenna, senior director of PR and field communications at the company. The brand identified more than 334,000 tweets from as far back as 2007 that expressed frustration over breakfast sandwiches only being served until 10:30 a.m. The company responded to every single one of them.
“We actually replied to them first before announcing all-day breakfast publicly, which was totally different from how we normally would have done it,” explains McKenna. “It proved an important win. We were actually using PR to drive people to restaurants and carry our message versus just amplifying it.”
Since then, McDonald’s has launched buzzy initiatives, including the launch of MacCoin, a play on Bitcoin, which could be redeemed for a Big Mac. Its Super Bowl work had major earned and social media components, featuring influencers such as Kim Kardashian sharing their favorite McDonald’s orders.
However, McKenna notes that it takes a lot of manpower to pull off some of these campaigns and interact with fans to this degree.
McDonald’s global headquarters in Chicago has 50 to 60 people in comms, plus pros nationwide and globally. Golin also runs a brand newsroom for McDonald’s, which is primarily devoted to engaging with influencers of 20,000 followers or more, confirms McKenna.
The social media audience also gives permission for QSRs to directly and cheekily take on competitors, which opens all kinds of creative possibilities, such as Burger King’s geofencing app promotion or Wendy’s taking on “frozen” beef in Fortnite.
“The quick-service restaurant category is hyper-competitive. It takes standout work to break through the clutter,” says Wendy’s CMO Carl Loredo via email. “We’re always thinking about what’s next to top what we did last time. It is part of the fun, drives our energy and is what leads to our next breakthrough idea or moment.”
Wendy’s has thrown shade at McDonald’s to build excitement for the launch of breakfast sandwiches next month with posts on Twitter like “Time to toss that folded egg-plane they’ve been calling breakfast” and “we show former McDonald’s Chef @Mike Haracz what breakfast is supposed to look like.”
Time to toss that folded egg-plane they've been calling breakfast. Starting 3/2 you can treat yourself to fresh cracked eggs on every breakfast sandwich, every day. #WendysBreakfast pic.twitter.com/qWVneOtN4g— Wendy's (@Wendys) February 12, 2020
#WendysBreakfast is coming on 3/2. This is former McDonald’s Chef @Mike_Haracz. He’s about to learn why we’re stacking bacon six strips high on the Breakfast Baconator. What’s good, Mike? pic.twitter.com/pcxbW4BHMS— Wendy's (@Wendys) February 5, 2020
Another key to creativity is that brands in the fast-food category are not afraid to take on the competition directly, says Lisa Rosenberg, partner and president for consumer brands at Allison+Partners, whose clients include Denny’s and Impossible Foods, which partnered with Burger King on a meatless Whopper last year.
“A lot of brands are hesitant to do that, and think they are taking the high ground, but when consumers see this from the QSRs, they don’t view it as going low, but just being good, timely fun,” she says. “I think that’s the nugget for other brands to take away from their success: to drive cultural relevance, talk value and earned coverage, sometimes you need to push beyond your comfort zone and your category.”