Everyone’s talking about it: Corporate Twitter has gone off the rails. Brands from Mr. Clean to JCPenney have been out there hustling for cool points, jumping on memes and throwing around Twitter slang to varying degrees of success or suckitude. The most consistent offender? The fast-food industry.
Odds are good that if you didn’t get IHOP’s recent “on fleek” tweet crammed into your timeline by a thousand trigger-happy friends, you probably saw Taco Bell’s Starter Pack. If not those, you definitely saw Burger King’s “These Chicken Strips tho” missive. Each of these tweets was retweeted and replied to thousands of times, with responses split evenly between people who absolutely loved them and others who were disappointed, disgusted, or simply left in a state of head-shaking confusion. Either way, you saw them.
Why are these companies so willing to compromise years of family-friendly branding—not to mention risk a PR stumble like Dave & Buster’s “No Juan Ever” fail—with this new tactic that’s guaranteed to alienate everyone over the age of 30? And why is it all happening right now?
There are a few factors at the heart of the current tweetstorm, all of them spurred on by the vaguely defined, not-quite-sure-of-itself social media marketing industry. To brands on Twitter, people under 30 are the only customers who matter—more than 75% of Twitter users are between the ages of 15 and 29, creating an echo chamber that can build up or tear down mega-celebrities in just hours (heyyy, #AlexfromTarget), not to mention invent (or, more commonly, co-opt) brand-new words that immediately become dictionary-worthy.
The problem is that, so far, none of these marketers have been able to figure out how to calculate the link between spending money on social media and making money on pancakes (or waffle tacos, or whatever). Since tweets don’t come with a “buy now” button, measuring their return on investment comes down to pure guesswork—a mix of analytics, gut instinct, and astrology. For the Twitter jockey whose job depends on proving how much that funny Pizza Hut tweet you saw a week ago contributed to you ordering a Meat Lovers’ pizza tonight, the easiest, most superficially impressive way to do it is through engagement numbers. The more people who fav or retweet a post, the higher those numbers climb—even if the majority of the RTs are mockery-fueled. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?
The fast-food industry, meanwhile, has been trying to nail down this exact same demographic for decades. People under age 25 spend the highest proportion of their food budget in restaurants than any other age group; more than half of the most frequent fast-food customers are also under 25 because they don’t know any better yet. Their psyche also doesn’t make any damn sense, which makes marketers do risky, desperate things to get their attention. In one recent survey, 48% of the youngest respondents self-identified as “foodies,” but of that purportedly food-obsessed group, almost 90% had recently eaten at McDonald’s. Any self-respecting foodie laughs in McDonald’s face when it tries to promote its burgers as “gourmet,” but that’s just what the millennial says he wants, so they keep on doing it.
In essence, people are still eating the same crap they always have—they just want to talk about it more (and are more likely to Instagram the hell out of it). That’s good news for brands like Applebee’s and Denny’s, which aren’t exactly breaking culinary ground every time they find a new way to put bacon in something. All they need to do to win customers over is to be out there on Twitter, getting their greasy food porn pics passed around like dad’s Playboy, and gaining the kind of trust that allows them to ever-so-carefully slip in the occasional detail about sales and specials without being instantly muted or unfollowed.
For a while, corporate Twitter tried to get that exposure through “real-time” marketing, piggybacking on the buzz around major events through well-placed hashtags or spuriously related content. The real-time success story that gently rocks every marketer to sleep at night is Oreo’s tweet during 2013’s Super Bowl power outage, which stuck the cookie on a shadowed field with the line “You can still dunk in the dark.” It was retweeted more than 13,000 times, and the guy who wrote it better have been given a pony and a week’s vacation at Disneyland. People couldn’t stop talking about the company afterward (still can’t), and its follower numbers on Twitter and Facebook saw a noticeable boost.
But after enough massive fails in the world-news department—Epicurious tweeting scone recipes immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing, the jolly SpaghettiOs Pearl Harbor memorial—most brands started looking for safer, lower-stakes ways to jump on the conversation bandwagon as it rolls ever onward. Their solution? Memes.
There’s a reason IHOP, Taco Bell, and Denny’s all thought it was crucial that they be “on fleek” in early October: It was a Twitter joke that had become common enough to be safe. It was new without being cutting-edge; recognizable by enough people to make it count, but not so old as to draw shade from the cool crowd who’d already moved on. This is how they do; when Taylor Swift revealed the cover of 1989, you’d better believe dozens of companies were out there with their own faked-up Polaroids and scrawled initials. If there’s a new ASCII character making the rounds, it’s absolutely already been used to sell pizza rolls and cookies. They’re just parroting back what’s trending in the hopes that something, anything, catches your short millennial attention span.
Unfortunately, this hyper-hip Twitter strategy just can’t coexist with a mainstream media image. If your TV ads still feature happy families on their way to a Hobbit-branded diabetes attack, having a social media account that’s so in-your-face young it barely speaks English anymore feels fake. That’s why most brands pepper their “cool” tweets in with safe ones; only a handful have truly doubled down on the Twitter lifestyle. The most successful of these is IHOP, which recently hired an agency to give it a Twitter makeover and soon went from a semi-boring, occasional joke-song-title-tweeting pancake house to a full-on Twitter slang machine.
Even better than IHOP’s broadcast tweets is its direct engagement with fans. In a tone that manages to perfectly match each follower’s particular style, IHOP responds to every single mention by someone under the age of 25 with a series of multiple exclamations marks, all-caps statements, and “bae”s. When a teenage girl in California talks about wanting chocolate-chip pancakes, IHOP responds with “they’re so good omg.” When a 19-year-old dude in Philly says he’s “omw to ihop,” they come back with an all-caps “KEEP IT 100!!!!!”. Not even Denny’s, the meme-jumping old-timer, or Totino’s, who flirts with Weird Twitter and recently released a video starring Tim & Eric, can claim that level of commitment to the bit.
For IHOP, which is only 60 days into its new life as a teenage tweet monster, the numbers are already showing. The chain’s follower count is up 18%—that’s nearly 20,000 people who’ve been lured in by all those exclamation marks. What effect will it have on actual sales? That remains to be seen, but as long as you keep passing those tweets around, IHOP really is the G.O.A.T.—at marketing, at least.