Nuggs for Carter: Why Wendy’s Personality is Perfect for Social Media

Carefully crafted marketing campaigns—the type that played well in traditional advertising forms—don’t translate well to social media. As consumers, particularly millennials and younger generations, turn to social more and more to aid with their purchasing decisions, smart brands understand they must meet these consumers where they are, in the style to which they’re accustomed. Millennials want brands to sound like their friends: they want brands to have a personality—no easy feat.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down to interview Brandon Rhoten, who at the time of our conversation was the head of social/digital, advertising and media at Wendy’s, at the 2017 WOMMA Summit in New York City. (He has since moved on to join the Papa John’s team as Chief Marketing Officer—congrats, Brandon!) Rhoten shared his insights into building an engaging, successful and sometimes controversial brand personality on social.

In a sea of boring corporate social voices, Wendy’s has distinguished themselves by being interesting and earning headlines in the process. Even if you aren’t a customer, you’ve probably chortled over one of their recent social exploits, like their gentle “roasting” of fans:

Wendy’s has found great success with their social strategy, and no matter where your brand is on the social evolution timeline, Rhoten’s insights can improve your social technique. The following three takeaways from Wendy’s strategy offers something all brands can incorporate into their social strategy.

Follow Your Audience’s Lead

Much of social media is about responding to of-the-moment trends and events. As such, brands with social channels that have to go through layers and layers of company approval before each post tend end up sounding like a press release—and no one on social wants that. (A side note: regulated industries do face much stricter standards, but there are still some great ways to build a dynamic and engaging social presence.)

Wendy’s sets their social up differently and is able to respond more quickly and follow their audience’s lead—to great success. “While we do plan activities with a calendar, we spend a lot more time seeing how the snowballs are starting to gather, and once they start gathering we push ‘em harder and harder and when they run out of steam we walk away,” said Rhoten.

A shining example (that still has steam): #NuggsforCarter. One night, Wendy’s social team uncovered a tweet from a regular high-school kid (with just 167 followers): ”Yo @Wendys how many retweets for a year of free chicken nuggets?” The team quickly got approval to give away a year of nuggets and responded “18 Million.” Rhoten said of the now-famous exchange, “Everyone went to bed thinking this was just another one of the goofy things we’ve done,” but by the morning, Carter’s tweet had 50,000 retweets, and it now has more than 3.6 M retweets (a record).

Lean Hard into Your Brand’s Identity

As the world of commerce becomes more and more digital (from AI bots to retail shopping), we’ve found that consumers crave human qualities in brands and companies they patronize even more. Social media facilitates conversation between consumers and brands, and conversation facilitates human connection, but social media is a crowded place. In order to form a lasting relationship between your brand and your customers, you’ll need a compelling brand identity. But personality can’t be faked: imposing values or attributes onto your company without a deep understanding of who your brand is can end up alienating consumers.

Consumers crave human qualities in brands and companies they patronize even more.


Wendy’s realized these truths about four years ago, explained Rhoten, when, as a company, they recognized that they weren’t expressing their true identity clearly enough to resonate with fans. “We worked to rediscover our brand voice,” Rhoten said. “We worked with a group of external folks that helped us go back into our history and understand what made us successful when we first started, what made us interesting as a brand.” And what did they find, at their core? Chris Pratt—really! “Chris Pratt from Guardians of the Galaxy represents our voice very very well,” said Rhoten. “He’s not superman, he doesn’t have superpowers, he’s not invincible. He’s just a normal guy who is clever, interesting, and resourceful and it makes everyone like him.”

“We worked to rediscover our brand voice—what made us interesting as a brand.” — Brandon Rhoten


Wendy’s takes calculated risks, too, as they cultivate their “charming challenger” persona:

Their “surprise and delight” communications, their gentle roasting of fans, and their little-brother challenging of bigger brands is all part of their cohesive—and multi-faceted—brand personality.

Focus on Hiring the Right People for the Job

“We hire people who genuinely understand the platform,” Rhoten explained, adding that his team follows every potential new hire’s social networks to make sure they’re competent on each platform. Looking closely at personal social accounts also gives brands a lot of information about a potential new hire’s judgement in the moment—crucial to know with the speed at which social moves.

Rhoten told us that Wendy’s also has very clearly defined brand rules, which gives them direction about how the brand as a whole will speak to the world. “We actually give them the tools they need, the partnerships, the budget—the tools to get these things done. So if they need a Spredfast, if they need a whatever platform to get their jobs done, we give it to them.”

“We hire really good people, we give them good direction, and we empower them to do their job.”

It all comes down to authenticity. We say it often because speaking cohesively as a brand across all departments in a way that not only compels engagement but compels purchase and lasting brand loyalty, too, is what social for brands is all about. “I could see brand managers saying, ‘Wow, I wish I could say that kind of thing,’” Rhoten said, “And my answer is ‘Why don’t you?’ Just talk to your legal team, figure it out, hire good people and be smart about how you do it.”

Editor's note: Join us at our 2017 Smart Social Summit for even more on how to build a brand that moves people.

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Virginia is focused on Spredfast customer success at every stage of the partnership journey. She leads the team dedicated to the customer experience including account management, strategic services, training, and enablement, and has over a decade of experience in providing social media and marketing strategy to leading enterprise brands.