Big Brands Serve Similar Dishes On Facebook

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For a restaurant chain, social media is an unforgiving place. The company might have a workforce that stretches to six figures but it only takes the poor service of one surly teenaged burger-flipper for a public complaint to be posted on Facebook for millions of people to see. Thousands of outlets staffed by hundreds of thousands of minimum wage workers serving millions of customers a year make those grumbles inevitable.

The “Recent posts by others” box on Pizza Hut’s Facebook page, for example, shows four posts all of which are currently complaints. One customer is unhappy that his pizza came eight minutes late; another says the bowl was too small; a third didn’t receive his midnight meal; a fourth posted a picture of a badly-packed take-out box. They’re the sort of problems that should be solved by a quiet chat and an apology from the manager; on Facebook they’re blown into brand-damaging proportions and they drown out the majority of satisfied customers.

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And the company has no control over that content. Brands are aware that the only thing worse than allowing customers to post complaints on their pages is the complaints that they would receive if they tried to censor them. The best they can do is to offset those moans with a strong content strategy.

A Buffet Of Food Photos

The restaurant brands of the Fortune 500 have content strategies that are largely successful. Although Pizza Hut’s comments and wall posts do occasionally show squashed pizzas and badly arranged toppings, the page itself is rich with professional food photography of tempting slices and open boxes. Some of the pictures are accompanied by text that carries the item’s price but the strategy largely seems to be to show the brand, display the menu options and build appetite.

In addition to that product-based content, some brands also engage in customer service. Olive Garden’s Facebook page is a buffet of professional food photos. The comments beneath those pictures can be divided between praise for good dining experiences or, more commonly, complaints about poor service. Each of those complaints is met with an apology and a request for the disgruntled customer to get in touch privately. (While those replies show that the company is listening, the suggestion that complainants may be rewarded with gift cards may also act as an incentive for customers to post more complaints.)

McDonalds follows a broader content strategy. In addition to showing pictures of its menu items, the company also posts commercials that contain its branding messages, photos of events that it sponsors and even in one picture a shot of red and yellow balloons. The images show a wider variety of content than those found on Pizza Hut’s page but the company also has a policy of not responding to customer comments. A post on McDonalds’ page will typically pick up anywhere from 150 comments to more than 1,000. Those comments will include accusations of animal abuse and toxic food products, complaints about unfriendly staff, spam messages offering work-at-home jobs and stock tips, and occasional protestations of love for particular menu items. McDonalds ignores all of them.

The policy may appear unfriendly and, in not clearing out spam, even untidy. But it does put the page’s emphasis on the content rather than on the comments and it weakens the power of the complaints.

McDonalds seems to accept that the space beneath its content will always contain plenty of criticism. Readers who want to read that criticism will have to wade through hundreds of get-rich-quick messages and gripes about cold fries. The professional content stands out and without a contribution from the company itself, few users will have any reason to look below the photo.

One food service company that stands out in its use of social media though is Starbucks.

When we monitored the use of social media among Fortune 500 companies for a 30 day-period earlier this year, we found that the café company recorded engagement figures that were second only to Facebook itself. Each Starbucks post generates engagement figures of nearly 50,000.

Like McDonalds, Starbucks has a broad content strategy that allows room to do more than just show product pictures. While we do see professionally-taken images of teas and coffees, espresso cups and syrups decorating cappuccino foam, we also see photos of tables, flowers and newspapers in which the logo is kept subtle and the product is barely even visible. Stores in interesting locations are also shown and the strategy includes visual aids to coffee types and bean grinds.

When it comes to customer service, Starbucks policy lies somewhere between Olive Garden’s pro-active complaint system and McDonalds’ decision to bury gripes in the comment noise.

On the whole, Starbucks doesn’t respond to criticism. When some commenters post long accusations that the firm harms health by using GMO milk in its products, the company leaves the comments under the posts but doesn’t answer them. It does answer though, when someone asks about the spices used in one of its teas and when commenters suggest other beautiful cafes to feature, the company posts links to pictures on Pinterest.

Starbucks does answer several times however, when commenters repeat a rumor that the company doesn’t support US troops. The company assures customers that the rumor is untrue.

Both McDonalds and Starbucks have an advantage though: the company brand is directly connected to the product.

That isn’t true of the owners of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, which are owned by Yum! Brands. Nor is it true of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse, which are owned by Darden, another Fortune 500 company.

When it comes to promoting those companies on social media, they each take a different approach.

Darden is not on Facebook at all. Although its restaurant brands have active Facebook pages, complete with customer service posts and professional imagery, the parent company relies on its website to communicate to the public. In addition to background information about the company and its history, the site places an emphasis on its sustainability, its community service and its listing as one of the 100 best companies to work for. Some of that information also forms part of the content strategy of the company’s brands. Although most of Olive Garden’s posts are photos of pasta plates and bread sticks, occasionally, the company will add an infographic showing its water and energy use or the number of meals it’s donated to poor families.

Those posts typically receive engagement figures about  a tenth that of its food pictures.

CSR Doesn’t Engage On Facebook

Yum! Brands does have a Facebook page although compared to the 10-16 million likes its brand pages have received, the company’s own 13,000-plus likes is relatively ignored.

The content strategy behind this page is partly to share news of the company’s growth (such as the opening of a Pizza Hut in Iraq)  and partly to provide a channel to show the company’s new advertising campaign. A change to the cover photo at the end of March, however, shows where the page’s real emphasis lies.

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The picture — and the page — are all about corporate social responsibility. Posts state that Yum! Brands have been listed by Corporate Responsibility magazine as among the 100 best corporate citizens; mark Earth Day by showing the company’s shrinking footprint; and include a video from the firm’s Chief Sustainability Officer.

Engagement is relatively low. A particularly successful post about employment opportunities might reach 100 likes; most posts though range from nine likes to about three dozen.

When a post on Taco Bell’s page, a brand owned Yum! Brands, typically receives about 6,000 likes, it’s not clear what the company is hoping to get out of its CSR Facebook page or whether the page is as effective as they would like it to be. The company’s website, which lists “responsibility” as one of the parts of its navigation bar, does a much better job of showing its “carbon disclosure product scores,” its “sustainable sourcing and waste recovery policies” and its adherence to “human rights and labor policy.” People interested in Yum! Brands’ corporate social responsibility are more likely to head to the website and download the reports than to follow the company on Facebook and receive occasional updates.

There are four major food service companies in the Fortune 500, and each has taken a slightly different approach to using Facebook. Starbucks has managed to win high levels of engagement with a variety of strong images and carefully chosen customer interaction.

McDonalds also uses a broad range of branding images but avoids interaction altogether, allowing controversies surrounding its products to be buried in comment noise.

Darden, sticks largely to food pictures, interacting with all complainants and posting occasional bits of corporate news.

And while Yum! Brands follows a similar content strategy, it also chooses Facebook as a channel through which to share its CSR information — to little effect.

The social media strategies of the four companies are largely similar but Starbucks’ ability to win high engagement through professional imagery, careful interaction and minimal corporate news may well be the most effective.

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