Arby’s marketing approach is conversational, authentic, funny, bold – and paying off
Arby’s has captured the interest and spending of younger, more diverse guests in the past few years, with the percentage of our guests who are 18 to 34 shooting from 38% to 54% in a two-year span. How have we connected so strongly with these guests? We have embraced a marketing strategy that is bold, smart, funny, and highlights the authenticity of our food and our brand.
In the process, we’ve made ourselves part of the conversation for our target guests. Here are some examples.
Putting meats and authenticity front and center
Arby’s marketing strategy is built around being authentic and having fun. When Brand President and Chief Marketing Officer Rob Lynch joined Arby’s in 2013, he worked with franchisees and other stakeholders to identify what made the Brand special. The answer: MEAT. Arby’s has at least eight different meats on the menu at any given time, and Rob worked with the company’s advertising agency to develop a unique advertising campaign that put the meat front and center, highlighting not only the sandwiches guests could get at Arby’s, but also the ingredients.
There’s no mystery to our meats. When we rolled out our Smokehouse Brisket sandwich in 2014, we decided to demonstrate the care that goes into the brisket by showing exactly how it is prepared in the form of a record-setting 13-hour-long commercial. The commercial aired in Duluth, MN, and also streamed online.
You can still see it on YouTube, where viewers spend several minutes watching the meat cook in the smoker, skipping forward a few minutes at a time to watch the progress to answer this question: Did Arby’s really shoot a 13-hour video of a brisket cooking? Yes, we did, and the results were tasty. The results were lucrative, too. The Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich was one of the most successful limited time offers in Arby’s history.
As sales have increased, Arby’s has been able to devote additional dollars to national advertising — increasing the reach of our message and connecting with more guests. We’ve also injected our ads with a sense of humor, which makes the ads more memorable and makes it more likely that viewers will share the ads online, turning them into viral sensations.
A great example is an unusual ad we put out at the end of 2014. The impetus for the ad? In our eagerness to put the spotlight on our meats, we had neglected to feature our beverage partner, Pepsi, in enough ads. So what did we do? We issued a mea culpa by putting a meat-worthy spotlight on Pepsi. The advertisement has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube — building the Arby’s brand without any additional costs for franchisees.
Another example of bold Arby’s marketing: When we rolled out limited-time-only brown sugar bacon menu items in summer 2015, we also rolled out an ad and PR campaign encouraging vegetarians to call our support line, 1-800-MEAT-HLP, if they needed extra help resisting temptation. The helpline generated headlines for Arby’s; again generating a lot of brand awareness at little to no cost.
Arby’s marketing uses humor to connect with guests
One of the most popular TV shows of the past decade was The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and in 2013, Stewart started making jokes that mocked Arby’s. Franchisees were horrified. Arby’s executives were horrified. The question everyone was asking was, “What should we do?”
First, we realized that we cannot control what other people say about us. All we can control is how we react. Second, we realized that these were jokes made in jest by a comedian who didn’t actually eat food from Arby’s. The Daily Show was poking fun at the way people perceive the entire fast-food industry, and we were just the stand-in for the industry. So we decided not to take it personally and to be good-natured. We started sending a catered lunch to the staff of The Daily Show every time Jon Stewart made a joke about Arby’s. The jokes kept coming. So did the lunches. Then we had a breakthrough.
When Jon Stewart announced plans to retire from the show in 2015, we were ready with a quip of our own:
Jon, feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Arby’s (@Arbys) February 11, 2015
Social media followers retweeted the comment nearly 2,000 times, and it was seen by millions of Twitter users who gave Arby’s a lot of credit for having a good sense of humor. Rob says engaging with The Daily Show audience this way was a lot of fun.
“It comes back to us taking our food seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s hospitality, it’s restaurants, it’s fun, so we played along. We entered into that conversation. When it came time that he was retiring, we felt like it was a good opportunity for us to try and get the last laugh by tweeting at him. On the very next show, he spent the first five minutes, which is the prime time in any talk show, talking about Arby’s, talking about how we were worthy adversaries, and talking about how we had reached out to him.”
What we did next turned us from “that company Jon Stewart jokes about” to “that company that’s pretty cool and we should try out.” For Jon Stewart’s second-to-last episode of The Daily Show, we ran an incredibly bold ad — a tribute to the departing host that featured a highlight reel of his Arby’s jokes. We also tweeted, “Sometimes Jon’s jokes about us were hard to digest, but we kept watching #TheDailyShow anyway. #JonVoyage”
“Any company that has this level of sense of humor gets my $$.”
The reaction to the send-off on Twitter and on Arby’s Facebook page was overwhelmingly positive.
“You win. I haven’t been to Arby’s in two years. Guess I will be going this week,” Jillian L. wrote after seeing the ad. “Any company that has this level of sense of humor gets my $$.”
Rob says, “when he first started joking about us, we could have gone a completely different route. We could have sent him a nastygram saying, ‘We’re never going to spend any advertising dollars with you if you keep saying this stuff about us,’ but what he was saying was authentic for him. There wasn’t any harmful intent there, there wasn’t any maliciousness, so we felt like we could play along, and it turned into fourteen or fifteen months of banter. I think, in the end, everyone got the joke and we really benefited from the exposure.”
Award-winning social media strategy connects with target guests
The Arby’s social media strategy has thrust us into the national conversation, allowing us to generate buzz and attract new guests while outmaneuvering larger chains with much bigger advertising budgets. Arby’s marketing efforts have earned recognition from the American Marketing Association for our brand re-launch and social media efforts and from the Public Relations Society of America for our use of Twitter and for our Guinness-World-Record-setting 13-hour commercial for our Smokehouse Brisket. PR News lauded our use of social media, and the Real Time Academy of Short Form Arts & Sciences (which is like the Academy Awards for social media) awarded us the top prize for a cheeky tweet to music star Pharrell Williams that generated millions of impressions.
Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back? #GRAMMYs — Arby’s (@Arbys) January 27, 2014
Calling the right play at the right moment
To generate buzz, you need to be part of the conversation, and to be part of any conversation you have to listen. We pay attention to what other people are saying about our Brand, which is how we learned that football legend Steve Spurrier is an Arby’s fan who made our restaurants part of an annual tradition. Every year at the beginning of football season, Spurrier and his players would give interviews during SEC Media Day. Afterward, he’d head to Arby’s. Spurrier is a great coach, and when he shocked the sports world by announcing his sudden retirement on Oct. 12, 2015, we took the opportunity to show our appreciation.
— Arby’s (@Arbys) October 13, 2015
Our message was retweeted 4,600 times and seen by millions of Twitter users. CBS Sports and other news outlets reported on our offer. The cost to Arby’s franchisees for this wave of publicity? Zero.
“The only cost is for us to be ready. The only cost is for us to listen,” says Brand President and Chief Marketing Officer Rob Lynch. Rob and his team use social media as a tool for engaging with guests — not direct advertising. Younger guests skip ads, but they crave smart and funny conversations. “I mean, it’s one sentence. It’s, ‘Hey, Mr. Spurrier. Let us know where the retirement party is so we can bring you sandwiches,’ ” Rob says. “It’s not, ‘Hey, Mr. Spurrier. We’ve got these great new products that are higher in protein content than anyone else, that have great prices…’ ” The key to connecting with guests is to be part of the conversation, to be bold and unapologetic about who you are and what you sell, and not to take yourself too seriously. That’s how we keep hitting home runs.