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What Arbys Can Teach Startups About Digital Marketing

Amanda Schnieders on January 27, 2014 Source: e360 Blog

Amanda SchniedersLast night, I sat down to watch the Grammys--remote in one hand, phone in the other. As is typical these days, a primetime award show, sporting event or political presser isn't quite complete without the added noise of what the rest of the world thinks about what’s going on in front of us onscreen. But as luck would have it, this occasion provided me with an important and far-more-lasting lesson in the power of digital media than the reasoning behind Lorde's black fingertips. And it was all thanks to Pharrell Williams' hat.

Pharrell_hatFor those of you who did not catch the three and a half hour spectacle, let me quickly fill you in on what I'm talking about. Pharrell, the successful singer, producer and winner of last night's Record of the Year award in partnership with Daft Punk, showed up on the Grammy red carpet in a red leather track jacket, jeans and a hat that can only be described as an homage to the Canadian Mounties. Large, brown and wide-brimmed, it was something of the Smokey the Bandit collection. The out-of-place altogether goofiness of the hat caused many to think it was some sort of joke at first, but well into the first hour and following Pharrell's acceptance of the award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance with the lovely, muted robots of Daft Punk, it was clear this was no joke.

Then, something started happening on Twitter. Something smart. Something subtle. Brands started using this to their advantage. Arby's fired off a simple question of 82 characters "Hey @Pharrell, can we have our hat back? #GRAMMYs".


It wasn’t followed by “buy a roast beef and cheese if you agree.” It wasn’t promotional, but it was funny and relevant to what was trending on Twitter. Best part of it all? This didn’t cost Arby’s a dime. With those 82 characters, they reached 79,000 retweets and 44,000 favorites.

This is what branding is all about. This is entrepreneurial marketing gold. You don’t need a marketing team of 15-20 people, or a budget of $100,000 to do what Arby’s did. All you need is a solid product or service combined with the right creative people who know what tactics to use and when to use them. Most of us on the branding side, especially those who deal with the social channels, schedule our tweets and posts for the entire week and weekend, and by the time Saturday comes around, we’re sick and tired of looking at hashtags and usernames. But with a startup, you can’t afford to sit back and hope that is going to take care of your engagement and marketing efforts to build your brand. In the beginning of a venture, the only people who care about your brand are you (and the few people who have decided to take the crazy leap with you). At all hours of the day, you need to be in the space where your customers are, engaging them in what they care about, and not just about why your product is great.

Anita Newton, a veteran marketer who’s worked for big companies and startups, told me “you need to engage people in a 4:1 ratio. For every time you talk about yourself or your product in a social channel, you need to be talking about your customers four times more.” This means providing them with tips or advice to help improve their lives, outside resources that are useful to them or inspirational snippets that make them feel better about themselves or the world. And have nothing to do with your product or your marketing agenda. Otherwise Newton said, “You’re just that friend who talks about themselves way too much, won’t listen to anyone else’s stories and someone people ultimately start to avoid.”

Arby’s wasn’t asking anything of their customers when they sent out that tweet. They simply saw the right opening in the digital conversation for them to provide some humorous commentary on current events. It was easy to understand. The hat, clearly presented in their logo, was unmistakably similar to Pharrell’s. Arby’s wasn’t the first brand to do this (several other brands made similar connections that night alone), and they certainly won’t be the last one to use this technique. Why? Because it’s simple and it works. I couldn’t tell you the last time I even thought about Arby’s, but this morning, it was one of the first things I thought about when I considered my lunch options. All it takes is a window of opportunity to get inside your customer’s head that first time.

(Oreos also does a great job of this kind of marketing. Take a look at what they did during the Super Bowl blackout last year.)

This is how startups should think about marketing their new venture. Strategizing doesn’t end the moment you schedule that last tweet, or even when you leave the office. Great brands are built up by people whose passion for the product or service is constantly with them. They are always thinking of ways to better engage with their customers, to the point where it almost happens subconsciously. They’re not looking for the most expensive strategy. They’re looking for the simplest strategy with the tactic that makes the most impact in this new world of digital marketing (a place that is now filled with tools that cost nothing).

Don’t think this gives you free reign to start spouting off comments about every pop culture event through your brand’s social channel. This could be a recipe for disaster, especially if they’re snarky comments about Taylor Swift’s dance moves. Look for things that are relevant to you and your brand. (Remember: everything in moderation.) Be lively. A brand’s relationship with its audience is no longer one-sided. It’s a dialogue. Don’t be afraid to get into the conversation.pharrell_twitter2

No one could have predicted Pharrell would wear something comparable to a fast food chain logo. But the point is not to predict opportunities, but to be ready when they come along, and adjust your plan accordingly. To wrap it all up, Pharrell actually responded to Arby’s tweet with a witty reply of his own for all of his 2.7 million followers to see. And to think Arby’s entire campaign started with only 82 characters.

Interested in more information regarding entrepreneurial marketing? Stay connected with Kauffman Founders School. We’ll be unveiling a series on the subject this spring with our content expert Anita Newton.

Picture of Pharrell from E! Online.

Tags:  Arby's, Pharrell Williams, Grammys, entrepreneurial marketing, marketing, startups, tactics, strategy, creative, social media, Twitter, branding, digital marketing, resources, budget,

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