How Wendy’s, Denny’s and Steak-umm are approaching Twitter amid a pandemic

Is there still an appetite for brands’ bizarre, snarky and sassy personalities as the world copes with COVID-19?

Need a background for virtual meetings? This one is part of Denny's recent social media activity.
Need a background for virtual meetings? This one is part of Denny's recent social media activity.

Brands used to being lauded for funny, weird, or snarky social media accounts are in uncharted waters amid the global coronavirus pandemic. In response, marketers known for their colorful Twitter personalities such as Wendy’s, Denny’s and Steak-umm are tweaking their approach to social media. 

Nathan Allebach, social media manager at Allebach Communications and the person behind Steak-umm’s tweets, says the pandemic has revealed how building an entire brand around being sassy or even just a meme doesn’t work. He explains that a one-dimensional brand voice isn’t a good fit for a “complicated world,” and the proof is in the myriad brands that have gone quiet on social media. 

“You have to inject more personality or more humanization into how people are perceiving your total messaging,” Allebach says.

When the virus became mainstream news, he met with Steak-umm parent Quaker Maid Meats to talk about an appropriate response from the brand.

“We talked about PSAs and how we would directly mention what was going on,” Allebach says. “It’s a sensitive subject, so we had to be careful about how we would approach that. Now we have a trusted set of guardrails to work with and we are going from there.”

On one hand, Steak-umm is less active on social media, but it’s strategic approach isn’t changing much: before coronavirus, Steak-umm’s tone was all over the place, and it still is. Allebach says it’s all about reading the room.

“It’s not just funny or just serious,” he explains. “It’s a combination of memes and humor and then a stream of consciousness.”

The brand has also had a serious side in the past, touching on socially charged topics and trying to “keep it neutral” and “mediate different difficult conversations.” Steak-umm’s multidimensional persona on Twitter is helping it communicate during the health crisis. 

“We are still injecting a combination of humor and helpful PSAs or trying to spread positive and helpful information that is credentialed instead of just the sort of partisan, polarized data or info that’s in everyone’s feeds,” says Allebach.

Part of Steak-umm’s approach has included a 400-word Twitter thread about coronavirus misinformation that went viral this week. Blue-check-marked users such as CNN’s Jake Tapper, Starfish Media Group CEO Soledad O’Brien and actor Jeffrey Wright engaged with the tweet.

Just because the world sometimes feels unrecognizable amid the outbreak, that doesn’t mean consumers’ appetite for humor is gone. Allebach says the public wants a distraction from the news.

Wendy’s, known for the savage burns it lays on competitors and consumers, also isn’t changing its approach to social media amid the pandemic. Jimmy Bennett, VP of media and social media for Wendy’s, says the chain is extremely sensitive to what the world is experiencing.

“Overall, our approach has remained the same: develop a relationship with our fans and stay true to our personality,” he says. “We wanted to remain active on social media to assure our fans that Wendy’s is still open for drive-thru and delivery, while also following necessary safety and cleanliness protocols and providing them with great-tasting food while they’re home.”

But Wendy’s is also using its other digital tools to give consumers an outlet to “escape from the world.” 

“Streaming on Twitch has been part of our approach for a while, but as fans are eager for more opportunities for enjoyment as they’re spending more hours at home, we’ve stepped up our presence on the platform,” says Bennett. “We love getting to share our passion with fans and talking gaming, while also offering this audience additional value like free delivery on Wendy’s.”

Wendy’s started streaming on March 20 with the hottest new title, Animal Crossing, and consumers have been tuning in. Twitch users spent a total of 3 million minutes watching Wendy’s stream Animal Crossing, highlighting its free delivery messaging during the stream and via chat. Organic daily streams were three- to five-times larger than 2019 organic Twitch stream averages.

“We can give [consumers] an outlet to escape from the world by streaming with us live on Twitch, but must always continue to be our authentic selves and build that relationship with our fans no matter what’s going on in the world,” says Bennett. 

For Denny’s, the pandemic presented a challenge that “jolted” the brand at first, says its CMO, John Dillon. Before the crisis, Denny’s tone on social media was “purposefully a bit off-beat, conversational and welcoming,” he explains.

“When it comes to social, knowing when to stay silent is just as important as knowing what to post and when, especially during a situation like this one where your audience is feeling rightfully uncertain and worried,” says Dillon.

Denny’s initially paused its social media content for several days. The shifting online tone requires internal conversations and the agility to reset strategy daily, Dillon notes.

“Now we are challenged with balancing that with our unique social tone, but we understand how imperative it is at this time to spread messages of unity and hope, and that means more to us now more than ever,” says Dillon. 

Denny’s is working closely with Allison+Partners and EP+Co to keep track of consumer sentiment and evaluate ideas and content daily. On social media, the brand is focused on sharing content that shows how Denny’s, its franchisees and front-line workers are supporting communities as well as how the chain has updated promotions for consumers. Denny’s CEO John Miller also ignited the #OneTableChallenge via social media to support the full-service restaurant industry and challenge CEOs from other restaurant groups to order from a competitor.

A study from Global Web Index released this week found that in the U.S., 82% of people want brands to provide practical information and tips, but consumers also approve of brands providing entertaining content, says Golin global digital practice leader Jeff Beringer. 

“If a playful brand with a lighthearted tone can deliver information that fits the needs of consumers right now on-brand, but it’s utilitarian in nature, that is very accepted by consumers today,” he says 

As for his personal preference, Beringer wants to see the sillier brands on Twitter such as Denny’s, Wendy’s and Steak-umm be themselves. 

“Staying on-brand is job one, even during a pandemic,” he explains. “Brands shouldn’t be who they aren’t.” Consumers “need to smile,” Dillon adds. 

With that in mind, Denny’s is also posting humorous content, such as downloadable Denny’s backgrounds for video conference calls.

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