Social Media | September 2013 | By Christa Gala

The Quest for Viral

Restaurant brands search for the perfect recipe to create buzzworthy videos.

Viral video campaigns like Smithfield's build marketing campaigns online.
Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q relies on podcasts hosted by Southern sportscasters like Demetri Ravanos (left) and Rashim Lee to gain viral buzz from guests. Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q (scnb)
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At Arby’s, it was “legendary detective” Bo Dietl delivering a meat slicer to a competitor’s drive-thru window, reminding viewers and Arby’s fans that many competitors don’t slice on site. At Quiznos, it was a look-alike of famed gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi rating its Chicken Bacon Dipper sandwich as it sailed through the air and landed in a container of dipping sauce.

For both quick-service brands, these scenes, captured in video for TV and online audiences, successfully made fans laugh and created brand awareness, drove traffic, and inspired others to share.

More than 180 million Internet users in the U.S. watched 36.6 billion online videos in May 2012 alone, according to comScore, a company that tracks media usage. And video examples like those from Arby’s and Quiznos show that brands and restaurants from the quick-service sphere are cashing in on this ever-growing interest.

“It’s every marketer’s dream to be able to go viral with something that is cool and hip and edgy that doesn’t negatively taint the brand,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president with foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic Inc. “It’s an absolutely huge win; you can’t even buy that kind of PR.”

Diana Udel, executive producer at KSC Kreate, a Florida-based production studio that specializes in visual content, says limited-service brands must understand their audience when attempting to create a video they hope will catch on in the online world.

“Look at the analytics that are available, especially on mobile. Mobile has the back-end analytics to look at user behavior and preferences that will help you leverage that information to create great user experiences, as well as enticements to interact with your brand,” she says. “And in the case of food, beautiful mouth-watering imagery always tells a good story.”

Tristano says there are three basic components to keep in mind when creating and filming a video that is not just going to be used internally: Use real patrons, not actors; show the ordering process and a happy staff; and display fresh ingredients during the food preparation and cooking process. Rolling all of that together with something hilarious and uber-modern that isn’t offensive is a tall order.

However, when the elements combine in a perfect storm to create a viral video, the chance that guests and fans will share it among their friends and family skyrockets, creating a potential boon for quick serves.

“Recommending a picture or a video is like recommending a restaurant,” Tristano says. “As generations age, brands are looking for new customers.” Many videos shared through social media target not only Generation Y—those born between 1977 and 1994—but also Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2012.

In April of this year, A&W Restaurants launched its Mini Polar Swirls dessert with a campaign on Vine, the first limited-service company to use the social video application for marketing purposes. Creators were able to make the chain’s mascot, Rooty the Root Bear, perform magic tricks using the dessert; the video was a hit with technology pundits, magicians, and fast-food enthusiasts alike.

But some brands are going beyond one-time or one-campaign videos and relying on a series of digital efforts to build buzz and sales. Last fall, Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q (scnb) launched a podcast to bolster its annual tailgating campaign, which has its own website, realtailgate.com.

The “Realtailgate.com College Football Show” is produced by Southern sportscasters, who chew the fat over four Atlantic Coast Conference schools and East Carolina University throughout the football season.

Wanting more content to tweet about during the week, director of operations and marketing Richard Averitte hired a handful of bloggers, each self-described football experts with considerable followings.

“That was the turning point,” Averitte says. “Website views quadrupled, especially when I got this guy from NC State named James Curle. Every time he pushed the blog, unique views would skyrocket. All of a sudden, people were coming to realtailgate.com for insight on football.”

Sales for SCNB tailgate packs were up 22 percent in 2012 compared with 2011. “It was the most successful campaign I’ve ever been a part of,” Averitte says, adding that video campaigns like the ones SCNB uses require more time but less money than traditional campaigns.

This season, the Eastern North Carolina barbecue chain plans to post original video on a new venue, Google Plus Hangout, where podcasters will predict scores and take live calls from guests and viewers. Fans will be given the opportunity to watch live or view the show on YouTube.

While there’s no magic formula or recipe to creating momentum through viral videos, Udel says, brands have to bring something to the table that consumers crave. “Include useful information, engaging content, and special offers,” she says. “Create an experience in storytelling that gives a little more understanding of your brand and a little more appreciation.”

Tristano says viral videos don’t always have to be designed to get guests to come to the restaurant.

“It’s designed to bring the brand closer to the consumer, create a top-of-mind perception, and then get the customer to try it,” he says. “Or, if the customer has already tried it, to engage the customer in a way that they feel closer because that brand is more edgy, more like them.”

Whether a growing number of quick-service and fast-casual concepts will put the effort into trying to create the next big viral video largely depends on the brand’s culture, Tristano says, especially if it’s a brand that appeals to a younger audience. He says Jack in the Box, for example, typically appeals to this demographic with its late-night hours and offerings.

“Brands like that are going to find ways to reinvent themselves through the Internet through this opportunity,” Tristano says. “And then there will be more conservative mainstream brands that really don’t engage it for fear of losing customers.”