Wacky treats and social media tricks: How fast food’s secret sauce lures you in


Photos of Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappuccino were everywhere you looked on social media. And if you weren’t Facebooking, Instagramming or tweeting about the bright pink and purple drink, you were listening to people talk about it, because they’d seen it somewhere.

Ditto for Taco Bell’s Naked Chicken Chips.

And McDonald’s french fry-tined stunt cutlery, the Frork.

And that was just in the past few weeks.

Fast food chains are going gaga on social media to promote products that they hope will go viral. Likes, tweets and engagements translate into millions of dollars in sales, as online influencers post their way to packing more firepower than Super Bowl commercials, and companies pitch menu items that create enough buzz to prompt mentions in Fortune 500 companies’ earnings calls alongside (yawn) consolidated operating income.

“As you look at different restaurants, there’s a pattern of introducing new products that surprise and delight consumers and in a world where surprise and delight (rules) social, it has to be something business thinks about,” said Jano Cabrera, spokesman for McDonald’s, the company that invented not one new utensil, but two.  A special straw – called the S.T.R.A.W., which stands for Suction Tube for Reverse Axial Withdrawal — was designed for the chain’s limited-time Shamrock Shakes.

A successful new product only captures consumers’ interest and gets them talking about it, Cabrera said. The TKO punch is when the company does something with it “that supercharges the conversation even further.”

It worked with the Frork. According to the social data analytics company Talkwalker, which tracks online chatter, McDonald’s had 69,000 social- media mentions the day before the french fry fork was introduced versus 123,000 the day of the reveal.

“If they see a spike in social media mentions and a spike in sales, it’s safe to say there was a direct correlation,” said Talkwalker CEO Todd Grossman. “These are highly sophisticated marketers and advertisers and this is their living. This is their livelihood. This is their job. They’re not going to be right all the time, but they have to experiment.”

Gone are the days of chains’ extolling the deliciousness of their foods. Promotional materials highlight the exciting shtick and the limited time the food is available: Get this now… and bring your smartphone.

Because of photos’ role in social media strategy, the look of the food is key. The animal unicorn is are usually depicted as dull white, not DayGlo. And is the chicken actually nude? No, it’s breaded. But add a sexy word and you get a social bang.

The Unicorn Frappuccino will likely be a case study taught in business schools for years to come. Talkwalker found that Starbucks had close to 51,000 social-media mentions the day before the sweet-to-sour drink was announced, compared to almost 72,000 the day it was unveiled — and more than 177,000 the day after that when it was available in stores.

The chain declined to discuss details about its marketing or product development strategies, but the Seattle-based behemoth has a playbook that works. It creates pumpkin spice latte frenzies in the fall and its red holiday cups are a pop of attention-grabbing and brand-promoting color on social platforms annually.

“How we use social media is very much an extension of what we call the Starbucks experience,” said spokeswoman Erin Shane Riley.

Taco Bell’s  Naked Chicken chips were inspired by the success of the Naked Chicken Chalupa this winter. For that product, Taco Bell teamed with the website Foodbeast and invited 70-plus “influencers” – food bloggers and Instagram foodie stars, like Jen Balisi and Michel Phiphak, who have 314,000 and 192,000 followers on Instagram, respectively, to events in different cities. These selected few sampled the menu item before it launched and some spread the word to their fans.

“The photographs of the Naked Chalupa spread like wildfire. We saw a tremendous amount of engagement,” said Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell’s director of communications and engagement. “When we launched it in restaurants. we didn’t have any advertising support yet. Sales were incredibly high the first several days of our launch. It pretty much exceeded our forecast…. It was all driven by word of mouth, social and PR.”

The chain sold more than 25 million of those Chalupas in five weeks. That’s an estimated $75 million in sales. Taco Bell declined to comment on the cost of a traditional advertising campaign.

And even if a wacky new menu item’s viral success doesn’t get all the would-be customers to order it, all the buzz gets people in the door to buy other food and drinks.

“All restaurants are somewhat in a bind, right now and they’re trying to differentiate themselves. The quick-service restaurant space, in particular, has been challenged,” said restaurant consultant John Gordon of the Pacific Management Consulting Group. “All the franchise brands have a duty to be able to connect with their customers somehow, because there are so many competitors of the same basic food type and experience type.”

These chains want people Instagramming themselves with the New Media nouveau cuisine – and those people usually are the much-coveted Millennials in their 20’s and 30’s. They’ve got decades ahead of them to buy food and an unquenchable thirst for social media. Some even have disposable income.

Compare all that to the more staid approach Arby’s has. When asked about its social media presence, spokesman Chris Fuller cited the chain’s tweet to singer Pharrell about his hat, which resembles the chain’s logo. But that was more than three years ago.

“Our approach is very niche,” he said. “We’re very careful. Hashtags can be overdone. It can come across as corporate-y. We want to engage people in their space.”

On social platforms, Arby’s engages gamers and self-described nerds. Its strategy is to celebrate common interests rather than attempt a hard sell, according to Fuller.

But social media promotion isn’t going away. The switch in how advertising dollars are being spent is seismic, as a growing part of the budget is headed to social.

“Digital is cheaper than big TV and it is much more efficient than a run-of-press ad or a coupon,”  Gordon the analyst, said.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer