There’s an oft-repeated line at Wendy’s that pulls roots from its founding days. Dave Thomas took fresh beef and formed a square so the corners of burgers would hang over buns. Thomas thought the sight conveyed better quality, and as a challenger, Wendy’s would separate from peers through outlier tactics, whether it had the scale or money to do so.
Today, Wendy’s explains how it got to the No. 2 burger spot as being, “not because the brand outspends the other guys but because Wendy’s outplays them.” And this approach, arguably, shows clearest on the marketing front, where Wendy’s “sass factor” enables it outpunch its weight.
Jimmy Bennett, global head of brand engagement at the brand, speaking at the QSR Evolution Conference in Atlanta, says the reality is every dollar at Wendy’s needs to feel like the equivalent of $3 in order to start from a level playing field. “That means we have to think creatively around every single assignment, every single objective,” he says. “How do we go out there and disruptively, in a positive way, make sure that we are getting in front of consumers and we’re putting our messages out there in order to resonate.”
A good place to begin is gaming. As the esports arena erupted and streaming flooded into millions of households globally, Wendy’s sought a path in. Bennett says the brand could have slapped its logo “on a bunch of different assets” and spent its way to visibility. Again, though, Wendy’s wasn’t going to win a bidding war for customers’ attentions. “We took a step back and asked, ‘how does Wendy’s show up in the gaming world? Well, we show up as a gamer,’” Bennett says.
Wendy’s jumped onto Twitch and started streaming. Wendy herself plays games on the platform, which gave gamers the ability to chat directly with the brand. Eventually, Wendy’s reached the top 1 percent of all streamers. To date, Bennett says, eyeballs wise, the chain has reached more than 10 million minutes of consumer interaction. Or the equivalent of 18 years of people sitting there watching Wendy’s play a video game.
“And it was all for free,” Bennett says.
The brand spent a bit at times to promote a DoorDash delivery or Coke interaction—something through its app it wanted to drive guests toward—but otherwise, it was able to generate all that noise organically. “I think the best part of that, though, was the connections that we are making with consumers and showing up as a gamer,” Bennett says. “Man, that gaming audience truly respects everything that we’re doing. We’re putting in all of the effort.”
“We talked about our square hamburgers,” he adds, circling back to Wendy’s mindset. “We never cut corners. That is again a definition of, it’s not just in regard to our burger, our menu; it’s in regard to everything we’re doing out there. We’re not cutting corners. We’re showing up in the best way in order to make sure every single dollar is the equivalent of three, five, 10, 15 times.”
From a wider sense, Bennett says, Wendy’s flips the rules of engagement. It tests and learns to remain relevant instead of trying to remain relevant while testing and learning. What Bennett means by that is today’s social landscape is hardly static. Platforms evolve and where guests go to hear and be heard constantly changes. So does the voice.
Bennett brings up Facebook as a case. A good deal of brands these days view the arena as “unhip,” or a little older, or, just generally, are finding reasons to not invest in having an organic presence considering the challenges. Wendy’s, however, once again, got scrappy. “We needed to find a way to break through,” Bennett says.
If Facebook is indeed a gathering place for the aunts, uncles, and grandparents of the world, Wendy’s was going to playfully troll by acting like Boomers were calling the shots. Posts began showing up in all caps. Misspelled. A picture with no context to the comment. “It is pretty unhinged, I will admit to it,” Bennett says.
Wendy’s tested this approach under the radar at first, but the reaction was swift. It’s now to a place where the reach on all of Wendy’s Facebook posts is double what it had been. “Again,” Bennett says, “no pay behind that.”
@samantha.says What's going on Wendy😂 #wendys #wendysdrivethru #pr #prteam #boomers #lol #funny #fastfood #facebook #fyp ♬ original sound – Samantha
What the Boomer campaign achieved as well, parallel, was it reeled in younger consumers. News of what Wendy’s was doing showed up on other platforms, from Reddit threads to X to Snapchat. Gen Zers TikToked about Wendy’s Facebook. “It’s kind of the gift that keeps on giving,” Bennett adds. “Just love that we’re able to test and learn, stay the course. Test and learn has got to incorporate some risk to it or I feel like you’re not going to get to something that’s worthwhile. Anything that we are testing and learning, there is inherent risk built into it. We’re super comfortable with that because that’s where we feel the bigger wins can come from.”
Speaking of risk, the notion a fast-food brand, or any retail entity for that matter, would spend a full day insulting customers sounds like something that would give the corporate office age lines. Wendy’s has been doing it going on five years with “National Roast Day,” a tradition that began in 2017 after McDonald’s mistakenly shared a tweet with typos. Wendy’s quote-tweeted, “When the tweets are as broken as the ice cream machine,” and it’s pushing nearly 230,000 retweets at this point, with over 6,000 comments, and 618,000 likes. Going back to the “sass factor,” being salty toward competitors gained speed from there. Soon, it became a badge of honor of sorts, Bennett says, with smaller brands looking to engage and receive the same treatment. Customers wanted in, too. “It was phenomenal from the get-go, from Year 1,” Bennett says. “Some people are like, ‘isn’t it mean to roast?’ Well, we always say, you roast the ones you love.”
Bennett adds Wendy’s didn’t receive a single negative response to the idea, which evolved from campaign to movement to a calendar holiday fellow marketers circle as an opportunity to amplify through participation. And speaking to Bennett’s earlier comment on evolving as audience migration goes, Wendy’s made the decision this past year to head to TikTok. The company made it a three-day event from April 12–14. It asked users to post videos requesting to be roasted. Wendy’s then hit back with stitched videos of roasts from an animated Wendy.
When the tweets are as broken as the ice cream machine. https://t.co/esdndK1iFm— Wendy’s (@Wendys) November 24, 2017
Bennett says the move stemmed from recognizing consumers are thinking differently about content and how brands factor in. TikTok allowed Wendy’s to elevate the conversation with the ability to incorporate audio, video, voice, “in a very, very different capacity,” he says. “And we loved the ability to flex our muscles in a different way.”
It was no mean feat. Wendy’s had to figure out how to make more than 200 mini commercials in the span of 48 hours. “Which, if anyone has worked on a commercial before, that is a ridiculous amount of time to turn this around,” Bennett says.
The end result was Wendy’s got as many users in a three-day period as it had the entire year prior. And it doubled the amount of engagement it had on TikTok as a platform.
Wendy’s was among those brands that jumped into Threads as well when Meta’s Instagram unveiled it in July. The chain started by saying, “We decided we’re calling these threats. Get on board or get out of the way.”
Bennett says the platform’s engagement leveled out, yet Wendy’s remains involved in the conversation in hopes it can be part of consumers’ journey to figure out how they want to participate. The association with Meta makes it a desirable entry point from a data and connective standpoint, too, he adds. The overall direction, however, is simply something that hasn’t settled. “If nothing else, it’s another opportunity to flex our voice in the world and say we’re going to show up where consumers at all,” he says. “We’re interested in social. They’re interested in social. We’re part of the conversations.”
Bennett feels Threads’ engagement thus far has been slower and lower than the other outlets—understandable given the lifespan. Threads still hasn’t ingrained itself as a habit for people as it figures what separates it and what will inspire users to go in and open the app and not forget it. What conversations are happening there they need to be a part of?
Simply, it’s wait-and-see, but a place people can count on Wendy’s.
Broader disruption, though, is something Bennett and Wendy’s welcome in the social media lexicon. He remembers being one of the first undergrad classes to get a dedicated email address. “And I was like, ‘we’re in the future here!’” Bennett jokes. “It just felt so significant. And now, we’re at a point—I have nieces and nephews like this—where it’s like, what’s your email address and they go, ‘mom, what’s my email address,’ because they’ve had to use it to sign up for stuff. But that’s not how they engage in any capacity.”
Whether it’s privacy or government regulations, data, etc., the truth, Bennett says, is marketers must approach engagement by understanding you can’t rely on any single community. It’s constantly changing—the comfort and access levels. “So we’re looking at our own platforms to say, how do we make sure that we’re doing everything to keep those audiences and communities and engagement up to speed,” he says, “but then bringing in TikTok, bringing in X, bringing in Snap, bringing in all of these other platforms. That’s definitely a way to keep on top of the connections with consumers. It takes so many of them in order to make sure we’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket.”
Being diverse across platforms insulates Wendy’s from whatever disruption unfolds externally. If a platform loses traction, perhaps from official mandates, or just because guests decided to head elsewhere, Wendy’s won’t forfeit the ability to reach its base.
From the outset of his time with Wendy’s—Bennett has been with the company nearly seven years following time in integrated marketing for Adult Swim and brand management and entertainment partnership for Coca-Cola—a question everybody from franchisees to executives asked concerns ROI. What did a single Tweet mean for the bottom line?
The quandary of “clicks to visits” is an age-old one in foodservice. Bennett says Wendy’s had to change the equation as you often do when crashing the status quo. It was just the wrong question to ask.
“There’s a certain objective. We’re using social for a reason. We’re using social to engage. We’re using social to make sure that we stay relevant,” Bennett says. “To have connections with consumers. To go deeper into the passions that we’ve established.”
How this philosophy materialized for Wendy’s is “around making friends.”
“And then,” Bennett says, “inviting them to watch.”
It’s proved enormously purposeful over the years. “Think about friendships that you have in the world,” Bennett says. “If somebody tries to do something that’s not honest or feels a little seedy, you’re not going to want to be friends with them. But once you’ve established that friendship, once you’ve lived up to the tenets of what a friendship is all about, I invite you to lunch, it’s a no-brainer. I’m going to go. Food becomes a natural corporation into the conversation itself.”
Social gave Wendy’s a place to talk about its food, but not in a way that feels intrusive. Constantly, Bennett explains, Wendy’s asks if its message is the “way you would talk to a friend? Is this the expectation of what you want would from a friend.”
Picture it as follows: Bennett says he’ll be asked about a brand offer (say a food deal or app pulse) and why Wendy’s didn’t post “go buy X or do this?”
“And it’s like, hey, we’re going to get there eventually and we’re going to sell 10 times as many of them if we think about it the right way and we make sure that we’re living up to all of things that we’re doing,” he says.
Every subsequent reaction after a “friendship” becomes more impactful. Reiterated once more, it’s an organic path where Wendy’s doesn’t have to spend as much money going forward once connections are locked in. “That response, that engagement, that permission, has already been established with the audience, with the consumers, that allows for our messages that need to get out there,” Bennett says.
“I will not be here if hamburgers are not sold,” he adds. “So we need to make sure that we’re constantly pushing the business forward, but it can’t be at the expense of everything that we’re doing in order to make sure that the consumers are at the heart of every single thing that we’re thinking about. Every single thing that we’re doing.”
As Wendy’s digs further into this world, how it hires and builds social teams becomes only more paramount. Bennett says the brand looks for people who have a passion in social, who themselves are living and breathing it daily. As consumers they know what they like, don’t like, and are familiar with where brands live and how they come across. “We talk a lot about diversity of thought,” Bennett says. “How do you make sure that the different passions show up in the right way?”
For instance, there’s a member of Wendy’s social squad who loves wrestling. So you might see some posts about wrestling authentically aimed at that community. There’s another plugged into local music, which has given Wendy’s the lease to post about and not feel like a poser. The same is true of getting into Bravo and Wendy’s Ricky and Morty partnership that included a pop-up restaurant. “I love Rick and Morty, and I can go into meetings and say, whoa, that’s not true to everything that’s going on in the Rick and Morty fandom,” Bennett says. “… And I think that recognition, understanding, depth of passion, it can be on anything. But we need to see that energy and see that desire to have a conversation, extend the conversation, to be talking to other people, to build a community around it.”