#42: Why Does Snark Pay Off in Social?

Brands like Wendys, Dennys, Steak-umm and Moonpie have all popularized irreverent humor as part of their social strategy - what makes this work?

Welcome to the 42nd edition of the Marketing Mind Meld, exploring quirks and questions in the world through the lens of marketing, culture and human behavior 💭

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#42: Why Does Snark Pay Off in Social?

In one of the first pieces I ever wrote about marketing, I touched on a relatively obscure and unusual subject within social: why brands should pay attention to hip hop feuds.

The article was about how brands on Twitter responded to the Drake-Meek Mill feud that started in 2015 and it was certainly clickbait in a way - not all brands need to pay attention to hip-hop feuds and in a budget-constrained content arsenal, it’s hardly the first thing to prioritize.

But the point was less about the hip-hop feud or even Drake in general - it was about unpacking this new and irreverent style of humor that I saw everywhere on Twitter. Brands responding not with promotions and industry-style content but with human-aligned snark.

Since 2015, this trend of snarky Twitter responses has only increased.

Wendy’s, Denny’s, Steak-umm, MoonPie, Boston Market, DiGiornio, Oreo, and Arby’s are among the many brands using their Twitter not just as a channel for their brand awareness, but as a sociological exploration into just how people interact. You could call it shit posting, you could call it meme culture - but what’s the big deal about it?

When I first wrote that article above for IBM’s Social Business Insights, the larger feedback I got was a chuckle and “Sure, but it’s not going to move anything in the bottom line” from well-meaning older consultants who apparently knew everything I didn’t about social media.

But I’ve generally adopted an axiom whenever I see something I don’t understand - that much smarter people than I have a grander plan I don’t immediately see.

Wendy’s, Denny’s, Steak-umm all had very smart and capable social media managers. They weren’t just throwing out this schtick for nothing. So it made me more curious - Why does this type of humor work in social? What type of brands does it work for well?

Does it actually work for the bottom line?


Why Does It Work So Well?

In a theoretical world, brands focus on a very simple loop to get you to buy their products: build a strong enough association that seeps into your perception of the brand, drive a strong enough perception to prompt a purchase, make the purchase experience so good that your it becomes a part of your neural association with that brand. I first touched on this on my piece about color theory - how colors form the cues that begin to help us associate brands.

In the case of brands like Wendy’s, Denny’s and Oreo, there’s an important part missing in the loop: the experience. None of them are necessarily luxury brands. Sure, oreos are good but when is the last time you’ve heard a friend rave about eating an oreo? Same with the others, you don’t buy SteakUmm or Digiornio for any sort of white glove concierge service or go to Arby’s for a Michelin-style meal.

A perfect example of a stark contrast is the twitter for a brand like Tesla or Louis Vuitton, focused on the elegance and outward perfection of its product.

On the other hand, you have consumer foods, namely food and snack brands. At the end of the day, a lot of consumer products are commodities to an extent. If you were on a highway trying to choose between a Wendy’s, Mcdonald’s, and Arby’s, it may simply come down to convenience and random choice, hardly price or experience.

What we see on social is simply, in some ways, a compensation for that experience. The loop is still the same but it almost exists entirely outside of consuming a product - even interacting with the brand on social can be powerful.

In a piece about Steak-Umm in Forbes, Dani Di Placido comments on brand twitter a somewhat cynical take that there is a desperation amongst brands to crave this association: kindness, trendiness, efficiency and more.

But what makes these particular activities so powerful is that they play right into the engine of Twitter’s active engagement, allowing the brands that perfect the extremely online personas to also build the parasocial relationships that come with them.

Take Wendy’s for example.

Popularized through a sassy and almost sardonic persona, Wendy’s skyrocketed to social fame through its culture of roasting.

Of course, the irony is not lost on any of us that its mascot happens to be the opposite of someone who could gut your throat - perhaps that’s why it became popular in the first place. But then something strange started happening.

Accounts came out regularly hoping to be roasted by Wendy’s. Searching “@Wendys roast me” will give you hundreds of hits. There wasn’t a connection to Wendy’s the food brand as much as there was to Wendy’s, the savage social extraordinaire.

Were a subset of those tweets from current or future customers? Certainly. But a majority of them were in it for the game. For a brand where consuming the product doesn’t necessarily make you part of a larger community, the participatory culture is almost stronger on social. Strangers don’t bond over eating Wendy’s burgers.. but they can bond over Wendy’s roasts.

Take Steak-Umm as another example.

A brand that started in the 1970s to sell sliced angus steaks, Steak-Umm has found another fanbase amongst millennials for the provocative truth bombs it shares on Twitter.

It first went viral for a tweet thread from 2018, that lamented on the state of the current generation.

Steak-umm ironically comments on its very existence and why it has became a haven for millennials - not because they want to be entertained, but because they want to fill some sort of void in their life.

Is it sad that people are taking advice and mulling over relational empathy from a sliced steak company?

Think of a different question: Had anyone even had a POV on sliced steak before Steak-Umm came to life as a brand?

As a less globally recognized brand, Steak-Umm was effectively playing with a little less fire than Wendy’s. Turns out, it worked like a charm, effectively pushing positive affect to the tune of brand awareness. Willing itself into existence in your psyche.

Some might argue that this whole situation is silly - but Steak-Umm actually won the praise of many professionals in science during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Between its feed of absurdist takes and provocative truths, it shared a long thread about misinformation during the pandemic, which was lauded by scientists.

Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, was one of the many to praise Steak-Umm for their accessibility. He comments in this piece by Business Insider:

"I think there are large sectors of society that are more likely to encounter Steak-umm in their everyday lives than they are to encounter article preprints. So if they learn from their favorite brands that evidence has to be used responsibly, I think that's a whole new vista I would normally not be able to reach because of where I work for a living."

It makes sense that someone who lives in a world of peer-reviewed literature would contrast themselves with the average Twitter user.

What makes Wendy’s, Steak-Umm and all these other brands similar is not so much their tone (they are all somewhat similarly sardonic with varying exceptions across the brands) but the fact that what they’re promoting isn’t so much their product.

What they’re promoting is a sense of belonging within a sea of faceless brands that are simply using their social as another arm to sell their product.

Maybe you won’t buy Steak-Umm or Oreo - but you can still be part of this online community where simply just following an account makes you privy to a brand relationship.

In the piece on SMS Marketing, I talked about the value of anthropomorphism, our desire to attribute human traits to non-human entities.

What better way to visualize this than a brand twitter account that is essentially an extension of its human manager?

Nathan Allebach, who has helped managed Steak-Umms twitter, says the humanization is a big draw:

“What made the account successful initially was that we were really just breaking down the fourth wall a little bit further than a lot other brands. We tried to make it as real and as close to a one-to-one human interaction as we could.”

So while all this is good, the skepticism is largely always the same.

Does it actually lead to growth?


Is It Worth It For The Bottom Line?

One of the beautiful outcomes of Steak-Umm being as transparent as it is: it pokes at itself quite frequently.

We are a company with a bottom line being run by people.

It was a rather blunt outlook on the intentions of these companies, but not one that may surprise us.

With a simple business that has a single marketing cost center, bottom line is fairly easy to figure out. Let’s say you spent all of your money on a website - it’s hard to imagine any sales of your business not coming from the mere existence of it.

With Twitter, attribution becomes more complex. While we certainly know that people have tried these products because of their tweets (case exhibit below, Craig Newmark trying Steak-umms), lots of tweets don’t lead to any purchases or any net new customers.

Does internet engagement of this kind have any value?

I think it depends on a couple things.

First, it depends on what kind of product you are.

Take a look at Wendy’s, Mcdonald’s, Burger King and the plethora of brands that participate in weird twitter as well as the fast food space. Think of the breadth of advertising they have. You have television, out of home advertising, social media, google ads, social ads, jingles and a whole lot more. Sprinkle that on top of the pure ubiquity of these places and it’s likely that they’re hardly pulling teeth to get people in the door.

Beating Mcdonald’s or Burger King is a tough gamble for Wendy’s. Close to 12% of all restaurants in the US are Mcdonald’s vs. a mere 4% of Wendy’s - from the perspective of pure market share, it’s hardly a battle. But it’s hard to imagine the Wendy’s twitter account alone will drive this growth.

In a world where Wendy’s truly wants to take on the goliath, it would involve an impressive repositioning - opening up new expansions, new markets, expanding menu items, increasing average order sizes. Perhaps Wendy’s plans to do some of these things. Perhaps the brand is already content with the market share.

Either way, it does put a little softness on the “How is Wendy’s twitter helping the bottom line?” argument.

It might be a net positive to get more people to have a favorable view of Wendy’s and maybe buy some more as a result, as we saw with Steak-umms.

But does it need to help the bottom line?

It’s a well-known brand with multiple levers of advertising and a robust product. Perhaps it can survive without turning viral roast requestors into high-LTV customers.

The other dependence is on exactly how you measure the bottom line.

In advertising, ROAS (Return on Ad Spend) is typically used to define digital advertising effectiveness. For example, if I spend $3,000 on an online advertising campaign in a single month and the company returns $12,000 in revenue, the ROAS is a ratio of 4 to 1.

The problem with social is that not every single tweet is dedicated to providing a monetary return of some sort - in that vein, you almost have to take an ecosystem approach.

Ben Ricciardi, CEO of the full service agency Times10, mentions in this Forbes piece how this can all align.

“There is no easy way to financially quantify what each social media interaction is worth. It’s much more effective to take all the marketing channels you’re budgeting for and compare it against the general lift or decline you see in sales.”

In another example, the voice itself can be its own innovation.

Patrick Wells, who runs Moonpie’s twitter account, touches on how the brand (which has been around since 2017) hasn’t seen much of anything new in years.

"I've been having a lot of fun just developing this quirky, unique voice for a cult brand that had a much older fan base. The more bizarre I get, the better."

We’re certainly glad that he has.


Final Thoughts

When I first started experimenting in social, I was setting up Twitter for a restaurant and tried to give them a similarly snarky voice to Wendy’s. It got hard after a while - largely because the expectation was that we needed to sell a product.

In writing this piece, my main thought was to evaluate whether any brand could pull of what Wendy’s, Steak-umm, Moonpie and others have in the social space.

Ultimately what I realized is that it’s almost a job that transcends marketing: you have to be a sociologist of sorts, understand the psyche of weird twitter, be meme dependent, have a pulse on the corners of the absurd. It’s not something a simple 4P’s marketing class can get you.

I mentioned earlier that much smarter people than I have a grander plan I don’t immediately see.

As I’ve explored more about the Steak-Umms of the world, read interviews by CMOs that praised the emotional dexterity of these brands, and seen the extent of their online loyalty, I think it’s true both that these brands benefited from a first mover advantage (people now almost get criticized for trying to be Wendy’s) and that what they’re doing isn’t easy to replicate.

It’s an extension of the human mind in a place where it doesn’t naturally belong.

Ultimately, snark is human. It’s hard for GPT-3 or anything else to recreate perfect snark because it is innately an extension of a person. In snarky tweets, we see the guard come down from robotic promotions and manipulative sales cycles. We just see other people talking to us like a friend would. It’s the faceless brands with a personality we know.

If you see snark brand twitter, weird brand twitter, angsty brand twitter, or whatever permutation of unusual brand twitter exists out there, forget about the bottom line for a minute.

Just ask yourself exactly what void they might be filling in a world that’s full of them.


Until next time,

Kushaan

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