Blending Out

Charlie Hopper article1

Don't be so responsible that nobody knows you exist.

By Charlie Hopper

You’re doing everything you should, aren’t you? Nice food photography, a social media presence, a reliable schedule of limited time offers, an investment in technology, some professionally designed materials and branded communications – perhaps even buying a little space in the mass media now and then, depending on your size?

But have you ever considered that you just built a bland backdrop for someone else to stand out from? You just might have.

So how do you keep from blending in? How do you blend out?

Standing Out

Recently Wendy’s, a stolid brand with general positivity common to most restaurant communications, has been making (actually) funny jokes on social media. It’s been going on awhile, but recently they got national media attention for it. A troll-y guy doubted their claim of never having frozen their burgers and the social media manager drolly reminded him that refrigerators exist. It was calm and polite and funny and devastating. Suddenly, Wendy’s stood out.

Clearly, not every brand is equipped to do this. DiGiorno accidentally and playfully tweeted a cheeky response to a hashtag meant to be used by domestic abuse survivors; Cheerios looked inappropriately self-promotional when offering a Rest In Peace for Prince with a Cheerio dotting the “i.”

These missteps send a chill down a marketer’s spine – so most opt for safe, inoffensive stuff like this recent tweet from a major chain, over a little looped video of (admittedly, nicely shot) steaming fajitas being placed on a table: “We put the heat in fa-heat-as. [flame emoji].” That’s just self-interested wordplay. It’s not funny, it’s not personal, it’s not effectively differentiating and it’s not useful. The tweet’s been up for a month and gotten very little interaction or response. It blends.

Marketers need to stand out without crossing the line. And while on the topic of social media, here are a few suggestions:

1. Be very responsive.

If someone mentions you, acknowledge it. You wouldn’t ignore them in person if they mentioned you. You don’t have to be anything more than pleasant, but you do have to respond – and, really, most restaurants have this down pretty well. They respond to complaints, thank customers, Charlie Hopper article2retweet photos, and initiate. While it’s pretty basic, having a social presence allows you recognize the power of one-on-one conversation. You don't blend in if you're chatting directly.

2. Be very useful.

People help each other out. That’s a human thing. You could provide local information as part of your community’s fabric, or just say where your food truck’s going to be, or what today’s sandwich is – fine and informational. Be careful about being overly promotional, though, on social media. Save that for ads. Like, for example, consider how you personally respond to the following actual, randomly selected social media post: “Catch some serious southwest flavor with our Tex Mex Loaded Chips before they pass you by,” with a photo of the chips being passed around a table. Does it seem like they’re trying to connect with you in a friendly, social way? Or does it seem like they’re using the platform as a self-centered sales opportunity?

3. Be very intriguing.

Ever since coming up with the pizza emojis – that, when tweeted @dominos, would serve as a pizza delivery order – Dominos has maintained a social media presence based on innovation, light humor and being plain unexpected. And of course, like a lot of restaurants, they’re running a themed social media contest which can pay off nicely with followers when used in the right context with a fun hashtag and a decent reward. The trick is keeping those followers interested after their self-interest wanes.  

4. Be very funny.

This is where Wendy’s excels right now. Another favorite example involved them (but didn’t start with them), when Jimmy John’s tweeted “Sup @Wendys? [winking emoji] #KissAGingerDay.” And you know what? If you’re wearing your disciplined marketer’s hat, it’s hard to be actually funny because it requires irreverence, quick-wittedness, a solid sense of voice and a good feel for what’s culturally considered humorous – cute ad copy won’t cut it. Unfortunately, on an hourly basis, it’s a rare social media manager who can be consistently charming. Arby’s got around that daily challenge by zeroing in on one likely segment of their demographics and making iconic gaming references built from their cardboard containers – it delighted the people who got it, and if it wasn’t precisely what you’d call humor, it made that human connection.

In the end, making a human connection is the whole point, in any media. But you can’t make that connection if you sound, look and behave like everyone else.

Charlie Hopper is a principal at Young & Laramore. He is the author of the blog, and the book "Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious." Hopper may be reached at


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