Equipped with a tongue-in-cheek brand voice that bravely throws shade to its competition whenever it gets the chance, Wendy’s—the fast food restaurant and its redhead character counterpart—has become a cultural icon. The brand, and character, continue to express itself as the sassy friend who will tell you like it is, with the same tonality Wendy’s founder, Dave Thomas, established when he founded the company in 1969. Today, the fast food giant argues that its personification of Wendy’s, especially via social media, is more important than ever for creative strategy and overall brand awareness.
Kurt Kane, Wendy’s US president and chief commercial officer, and Debbi Vandeven, global chief creative officer of VMLY&R marketing agency, reflected on the reinvention of Wendy’s for a panel titled, “Beefin’ Up Brands: The Power of Creative Transformation,” at Cannes Lions. Kane and Vandeven conveyed Wendy’s strategy for inserting itself into cultural conversations on social platforms and beyond.
Wendy’s credits Twitter for its success in creating organic and memorable dialogue with customers. Known for its outrageous Twitter comebacks, the brand found itself in a Twitter rap battle with another brand, prompting Wendy’s to create its own mixtape in 2018. As a video compilation showed, the “We Beefin’?” mixtape—released on Apple Music, Google Play, and Spotify—earned the top spot on Spotify’s Global Viral 50 list and was third on the Apple Music hip-hop charts. What’s more, the mixtape received 76 years’ worth of streams in just one week, and 758 million earned media impressions.
“My personal philosophy is that it comes back to embracing the art of storytelling. Understanding that if there’s no tension in your work, no one’s going to want to pay attention to your work,” Kane said.
Wendy’s isn’t afraid to play games, either. When Fortnite announced an in-game food fight urging players to pledge allegiance to either burgers or pizza, Wendy’s saw an opportunity. For its “Keeping Fortnite Fresh” campaign, Wendy’s used a Fortnite avatar resembling the braided Wendy to destroy every freezer in the in-game burger establishment, Durrr Burger. They invited Fortnite players to watch the slaying of freezers (Wendy’s cooks with fresh, not frozen beef), leading to a 119 percent increase of mentions of Wendy’s across all its social media platforms.
VMLY&R, the agency responsible for the campaign, won this year’s Grand Prix Lion in Social & Influencer award at Cannes. Vandeven told the audience, “Wendy’s can live anywhere that has to do with pop culture.”
The way to effect change very quickly, Kane and Vandeven agree, is by way of mass media and social media. In order to be at the heart of its customers’ needs and cultural moments, the Wendy’s team keeps its finger on the pulse of trends that resonate with their customers.
“You used to think about television and where [to] go from there. We’ve completely flipped that. We talk about the conversation we want to start, and then we figure out the best way to bring that to life. Social has been a great way to level the playing field because we don’t have the dollars like larger brands in our same categories. But we can get a greater share of voice by earning it. Honestly, I’d say our social voice, started to inform the television creative and the more traditional channels as well,” Kane said.