Fast Feud: The Strange, Refreshing, and Biting Humor of Food Twitter

On January 15, 2019, Burger King tweeted an announcement:

This was not a social media editor’s typo but a tongue-in-cheek act of trolling by the fast food giant. It was an oblique reference to a tweet from President Trump announcing that he had served “over 1000 hamberders” to the Clemson Tigers football team at the White House the previous night.

Burger King’s foray into political humor paid off with hundreds of thousands of shares and likes. It even got a shout-out from a fellow food brand, PopTarts: “This was a nice tweet BK happy Tuesday.” Burger King shot back: “it really has been a happy Tuesday, thx.”

Plenty of brands would’ve avoided this kind of digital territory. They’d worry about angering half of their customers or getting roasted by the media for putting themselves in the middle of a political news story. But Burger King didn’t face much backlash. While it may seem edgy or petty for a food company to tease the President, this approach of commenting on daily life and breaking events with irreverent humor has become a dominant social media trend in the world of corporate food.

Selling happiness

Despite its reputation as a snipe-fest, Twitter also lends itself extremely well to humor. Silly, irreverent, self-deferential tweets will gain you followers. A particularly clever pun will go viral. A lighthearted, oddball persona plays well, the less punctuation the better.

Denny’s was a pioneer of this approach, figuring out early on that treating Twitter like a goofy gathering of friends is the best way to get engagement. The company hired the agency Erwin Penland to take over its social media in 2013, which helped move the marketing away from what everyone expected brands to do.

“My team knows we can’t just try and sell people burgers, pancakes and eggs, so we try to feed them in other ways,” Kevin Purcer, Erwin Penland former SPV of digital strategy, told Marketing Land. “Give them a smile, a laugh, or just a small memorable moment.”

This strategy won Denny’s a devoted audience. Followers jumped almost 133 percent within a year, to 95,000, back in 2013. Six years later, the account has over 500,000 followers.

“Our content is natural and always reflective of the little conversations that you might have in a Denny’s booth,” said John Dillion, chief brand officer for Denny’s. “Anything we do remains in our unique voice, and we tend to use it to join those cultural moments and, hopefully, make people smile and feed their soul a bit.”

As Burger King and Denny’s have discovered, the most effective way for food companies to approach Twitter is to define a brand identity broader than just “purveyor of food.”

Every tweet should embody or express the core principles and values the brand represents. For Skittles, the guiding principles are entertainment, merriment, showmanship, and imaginative ideas.

“We strive to bring our fans content designed to create a welcome disruption to their day,” said Michael Italia, head of social media for Mars Wrigley North America, which owns Skittles. “We use those brand filters whether we’re creating our own organic content or interacting with other brands’ social accounts.”

For example, the brand decided to put the funds it would have used on a Superbowl ad to produce a live, staged musical commercial—called “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical”—as a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The brand’s Twitter feed offered up a comical play-by-play of the process, even griping about not being eligible for a Tony Award.

Food brands tend to find a comfortable fit between brand identity and Twitter as a marketing platform. Their values and perspectives usually align well with the casual, social nature of Twitter, and the audience is open to discovery and eager to talk about food. There are 800,000 tweets per day about dining, per Twitter. Eating and socializing, after all, go together like peas and carrots.

“If you think about food in general, it’s a social setting,” said Brad Keown, managing director in charge of consumer packaged goods for Twitter’s client partnership division. “In any type of social setting food drives conversation, which is a perfect place to be on Twitter.”

A taste of helpful humor

Since current events and news items drive much of the conversation on Twitter, food companies find it strategic to connect their lighthearted social approach with the latest happenings in the world. Commenting on political or current events can be a savvy move, especially when using humor to highlight absurdity or confusion.

A good example of this is the campaign waged by Country Time Lemonade in 2018. In June, the brand retweeted a newspaper article about cops around the country shuttering lemonade stands and fining kids for operating without a permit.

In response, Country Time started a fund called Legal-Ade to pay the fines, using the hashtag #SaveLemonadeStands. The company even sold a special lemonade can to mark the campaign, tweeting out a link to the limited-edition product on eBay. As the news story snowballed, the Legal-Ade campaign became a positive footnote in a strange saga. According to Country Time’s marketing team, the campaign drove the most engagement the brand had seen since joining Twitter in December 2010.

It’s easy to see how humor, no matter how mild, can jolt people into having a reaction. But Country Time’s droll response is a good example of how Twitter can go beyond wry jokes and commentary toward meaningful action.

Fast feud

If there’s a common thread running through these posts, it’s that all of the brands mentioned have adopted a variation of the “funny friend” persona. They’ve started to cross-pollinate each other’s Twitter feeds with a chummy camaraderie. On Twitter, if not in life, brands take on the role of buddies playing off and ribbing each other.

In arguably the best example, Wendy’s—“a challenger with charm“—loudly proclaimed its beef (get it?) with other brands such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and, notably, IHOP. When IHOP ran a campaign that convinced its audience it was changing its name to IHOB, for International House of Burgers, Wendy’s had no problem going after its new competitor.

Then there was the time Taco Bell corrected White Castle’s grammar.

This trend of creating “humanized” corporate entities—so much so that they all begin to sound like a bunch of friends verbally sparring on a sitcom—is drawing criticism from some corners about blurring boundaries between the companies and the individuals running these social accounts. Others say that blurring is exactly the point and is much closer to reality than many imagine.

For example, Nathan Allebach, who runs Steak-umm’s Twitter feed, admits that the tweets he writes on behalf of the brand are just things he comes up with on the fly — “I’m just firing them off.”

The fact that brand Twitter accounts are able to channel to individual voices of those who write them is the secret sauce behind the success that food brands have had with this platform. If corporations are going to present themselves in the personable way that social media demands, it’s essential that they embrace the creativity, cultural sensibility, and speed of the editors who make their customers smile.

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