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Meet the 'most social' restaurant brands

New rankings from social-media vendor include Starbucks, Subway, McDonald's

Four restaurant companies landed among the 100 “most social” brands, according to the third annual rankings of social-media mentions from Vitrue, an Atlanta-based provider of social-media publishing software.

Starbucks Coffee again led all restaurant brands in the total number of online impressions gained through mentions on social networks, blogs, mobile platforms, and photo- and video-sharing websites, which is how Vitrue develops its rankings.

The Seattle-based coffeehouse chain earned the No. 14 spot overall. Other restaurant brands to break into Vitrue’s top 100 were the two largest chains in the United States, Subway at No. 64 and McDonald’s at No. 66, and regional player Krystal, which earned the No. 88 ranking.

The restaurants finished behind powerhouse brands like No. 1 iPhone and No. 2 Blackberry, or giant companies like Disney (No. 3), Coca-Cola (No. 9) or Ford (No. 11).

“The key is about innovation and staying relevant while continuing to be ingrained in the consumer’s mind,” Reggie Bradford, Vitrue’s chief executive said. “It’s not so much how [brands] manage social media, but how they build their products to deliver a great consumer experience and appeal to young adults.”

He said winning social media brands are now using platforms to promote and brand individual products aggressively, representing an evolution from practices of only a few years ago, when Facebook and Twitter were used most as tools for public relations and customer relationship management. He expects more segmentation and localization to proliferate among restaurant’s social-media tactics.

“The way brands can start to leverage the social graph is to start taking social plug-ins and ‘Like’ buttons,” Bradford said, “so that people can self-identify and say, ‘I want to hear from that product and that geographical area.’”

He pointed to McDonald’s recent online campaigns for its national McRib promotion last November. Although McDonald’s supported the product with national TV commercials, it also sought out McRib fans online and provided ways to share their enthusiasm for the sandwich, which Bradford thinks will become more common as restaurants are able to use plug-ins connected to Twitter and Facebook.

“As marketers layer on location-based,” he said, “somebody self-selects and says, ‘Hey, I’m a McRib fan in Chicago, and I want to hear about it and get a coupon whenever I check in at my McDonald’s here in Arlington Heights.’ That’s where the rubber meets the road. It drives return on investment, not just awareness.”

Starbucks leads the restaurant pack in social-media mentions thanks to its substantial lead in Facebook fans — 19.1 million to McDonald’s 6.8 million and Subway’s 3.6 million. Its Twitter followers also trump the competition, with more than 1.2 million people subscribing to Starbucks’ Twitter feed, while McDonald’s and Subway book nearly 78,000 and nearly 36,000, respectively.

Krystal’s total of 16,800 Facebook fans and 3,594 Twitter followers may seem to lag far behind the other restaurants, but those numbers are more impressive given that Krystal has nearly 400 units, compared with thousands of domestic units for the big three brands, Bradford said.

“The powerhouse brands … are at the tipping point of developing their own audience network,” Bradford said. “But at the other end of the scale are the thousands of independent or regional marketers, where it’s really about creating that dialogue and coupons through the news feeds for their fans. It’s scratching the surface right now, because there’s more affinity for those brands from people in their local market.”

Krystal most recently developed its Game Time Wings to respond to customers’ demand for chicken wings, and the chain promoted the menu item through a tab on its Facebook page and a six-city sampling tour on its Crave Cruiser food truck.

The tour, which stopped at sporting events across the brand’s key Southeast market, not only built up brand awareness and public relations but also provided new content for the chain’s Facebook and Twitter pages and drove mentions in fans’ tweets and postings. Bradford said that confluence of menu development and marketing would be crucial to restaurants of any size looking to improve their social-media presence.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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