Tragedy & Comedy Lift Discussion, but Not ResultsFoot Locker became the topic of millions of additional face-to-face conversations in recent months, first due to the tragic mass shooting in El Paso in early August, in which a heroic, off-duty soldier emerged from a Foot Locker store to help guide children to safety. Then in September, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cam Jordan joked after a bad call against him that the NFL referees were “Foot Locker” store clerks, who wear referee uniforms. The two incidents prompted millions of conversations about the athletic footwear and apparel retailer, but probably not the kind of discussions that lead to purchases. That’s too bad, because most of the spring and summer, the Foot Locker brand was suffering a conversational drought, the longest the brand has experienced in three years (See chart below). The lull in Foot Locker conversations cannot be explained as a category phenomenon, as Nike, Adidas, and Dick’s Sporting Goods were all stable throughout the same period.
FOOT LOCKER SUFFERED SUMMERTIME CONVERSATION LULLNot surprisingly, that downturn in Foot Locker conversation coincided with some poor business results. At midyear, sales were close to flat versus the prior year, earnings were down 12%, and the stock price fell 5%. As we have reported before, there is a solid connection between consumer conversations and sales, suggesting the Foot Locker brand needs to generate more productive consumer conversations that involve recommendations and the sharing of brand’s content, both online and offline. Foot Locker has tried to leverage Cam Jordan’s joke by sending products with a note that said, gamely, “we’ve got your back… and feet.” That gambit yielded a Tweet and picture from the Pro Bowl player. The company is also making several other moves to increase its connection with middle-aging Generation X, including “community-based Power Stores,” new digital retail technology, and exclusive products unique to specific stores. It will be a few months before we know whether those latest marketing maneuvers will produce results at the water cooler and at the cash register.
The nation’s biggest and best-known brands increasingly are stepping into fraught political topics, particularly gun violence. This week, 145 companies signed a letter addressed to the United State Senate urging action to curb gun violence. How are consumers reacting? In the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, FL, Engagement Labs’ TotalSocial platform found that online and offline conversations trended very differently for brands such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Citibank, Delta, MetLife, and Publix. Generally, social media conversations about brands taking stands to curb gun violence have turned negative, while real-world conversations remained positive. This reinforces a more generalized finding we have found, namely, that there is little correlation between the online and offline conversation. That pattern is holding up again following the horrific mass shooting that killed 22 and injured 24 people in an El Paso Walmart on August 3. Walmart and other retailers have begun announcing policies to discourage customers from openly carrying guns in their stores, even in states that permit “open carry.” Walmart also announced in September a series of additional policies to curtail the presence of guns in its stores, including an end to the sale of assault rifles and pistols, although hunting rifles will continue to be sold at Walmart. The response in social media has been quite negative for Walmart—first, as a result of the horror of the shooting itself, and then due to opposition to policies that limit gun sales and open carry in Walmart stores. Indeed, the net sentiment of social media conversations about Walmart were the most negative we have measured for Walmart in four years, with negative opinions outweighing positive ones for six consecutive weeks ending September 8.
WALMART NET SENTIMENT PLUMMETS ONLINE BUT NOT OFFLINEYet even as the online conversation about Walmart turned very negative, the everyday, face-to-face conversations held up—even improved somewhat. By the start of September, net sentiment for offline conversations were at +48, meaning positive conversations outweigh negative and mixed ones by 48 percentage points. That compares to a -10 net sentiment for online discussions about Walmart, the lowest in four years. One reason online and offline conversations differ so much is that social media conversations tend to draw the most extreme opinions, and often do not reflect the broader conversation measured offline. That’s why we recommend a holistic measurement approach that is available in TotalSocial. Three other retailers that recently made announcements to discourage openly carrying guns on their premises—CVS, Kroger, and Walgreens—have not suffered downturns in conversation sentiment, either online or offline.
WALMART’S SOCIAL MEDIA DISCUSSION HURT THE MOST BY GUN ISSUERetailer Fred Meyer, a subsidiary of Kroger, has seen its social media conversation turn negative, but other issues are involved, notably a threatened labor strike over compensation and pay equity. A sixth retailer, Wegman’s, has held up in social media after announcing its policy on open carry, but its normally very positive offline conversations have deteriorated, more likely due to its efforts to eliminate plastic bags in all stores by year’s end. Thus, it is Walmart who has taken the biggest hit in social media over guns, attracting the focus of attention from critics. What kind of impact might these businesses expect over the longer-term? Based on the Dick’s Sporting Goods example, there is probably is more upside than downside for all of them. Despite predictions of serious harm to its business, the positive offline conversations were more predictive of future success than the negative social media discussions, as we reported last summer in MediaPost. The fact that 145 companies are going public on the issue signals they have drawn a similar conclusion. Or else they have decided that the scourge of gun violence is so serious, it’s a business risk worth taking.
The much publicized fast-food chicken fight that broke out in August propelled Popeyes up the TotalSocial pecking order from 22nd to 11th place among quick-service restaurant brands, as we anticipated in our pre-Labor Day analysis. The dramatic improvement in the brand’s conversation profile was due to a huge rise in the volume of both online and offline conversations about Popeyes. Social media mentions peaked first, during the week beginning August 19, at about 1.5 million. Offline conversations peaked the following week at a stunning 45 million, reflecting the number of people who were part of an offline conversation about Popeyes. The volume surge put Popeyes in first place for online conversations, and first place for online sharing of brand content. The offline conversation volume surge earned the brand in second place—behind only McDonald’s, which earns many of its conversations due to its overwhelming market share advantage. Indeed, it is a remarkable achievement when a brand ranked 19th in market share grabs second place in offline conversation volume—even if only for a week.
For One Week, Popeyes Claimed Second Place in Offline Conversation VolumePopeyes did not rise higher than 11th overall in the TotalSocial rankings because the brand failed to earn a boost on other TotalSocial metrics, most notably, net sentiment. The chicken war did nothing to improve the ratio of positive to negative conversations about Popeyes, while adversaries Chick fil-A and Wendy’s continue to be conversation sentiment leaders. One reason for the lack of consumer enthusiasm may be the fact that Popeyes couldn’t keep up with the explosion of consumer demand, forcing the end to chicken sandwich sales “for a while.” Yet product scarcity has sometimes been shown to be a powerful driver of demand and word of mouth—by suggesting popularity, and by generating a “fear of missing out.” If Popeyes can sustain interest as it replenishes product inventory, the brand may be able to capitalize on pent-up demand. Which leaves open the question of whether Chick fil-A and Wendy’s made a mistake in helping to give so much visibility to a chicken rival normally stuck far behind in the pecking order. If nothing else, the chicken war provided a vivid illustration of a fact we’ve proven through sophisticated statistical modeling: Consumer conversations truly drive purchases.
Did the Popeyes quick-service restaurant chain know what kind of fight they were picking when they announced the nationwide roll-out of a New Orleans-style chicken sandwich? Until triggering this latest “chicken war,” Popeyes was positioned far down the QSR pecking order, ranked only 22nd in the industry with a TotalSocial® score of 42.4, reflecting below-average performance in social media and in real-world conversations about the brand. By comparison, Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A owned the top two spots in the TotalSocial® rankings, with Wendy’s the top brand for social media conversation, and Chick-fil-A ranked first for offline conversations. Both brands swiftly squawked back at upstart Popeyes, claiming to have the superior chicken products, and earning widespread retweets.
POPEYES RANKS FAR BEHIND WENDY’S & CHICK-FIL-A AS SOCIAL MEDIA CHICKEN WAR HEATS UP*MarketShare rank among “The QSR 50” for 2018 from QSR magazine. TotalSocial scores from Engagement Labs based on 12 months ending August 18, 2019. While ordinarily thought of as a “burger brand,” Wendy’s became famous for its spicy chicken nuggets in the spring of 2017 when a teenager named Carter Wilkerson asked Wendy’s how many retweets would earn him free nuggets for a year. After Wendy’s answered “18 million,” “nugget boy” went on to claim the all-time champ for retweets, breaking Ellen DeGeneres’ record. Since then, Wendy’s has continued to perform extremely well online, notably this spring when Chance the Rapper’s goosed Wendy’s Twitter account by publicly praying for the return of those Wendy’s spicy nuggets. Savvy marketers at Wendy’s jumped on the opportunity to answer his prayers, generating another Tweet storm. Offline conversations are also trending upward for Wendy’s.
WENDY’S ENJOYED A SURGE IN SOCIAL MEDIA IN RESPONSE TO TWEET BY CHANCE THE RAPPERChick-fil-A jumped into the online fray as well, but the brand’s true success is based on dominating the offline conversation. The brand has, by far, the QSR category’s highest offline “net sentiment” score, 80.3, 10 points ahead of number-two Dunkin’ Donuts, due to much more positive than negative offline conversations. Chick-fil-A is the QSR brand that people gush about, although the love does not extend to social media where its score is merely 32.9. When one compares TotalSocial scores to market share, some dramatic contrasts stand out. The top three brands—Chipotle at number three, in addition to Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A, are all socially punching well above their market presence weight. At the other extreme, a few market leaders perform poorly on the TotalSocial index: McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway. Only Starbucks earns a place among the top four both in terms of market share and TotalSocial® score. TotalSocial metrics have been shown to be forward-looking, meaning that market performance tends to improve for highly ranked TotalSocial® brands, and to decline for lower-ranked ones. How will Popeyes emerge from its game-of-chicken against two TotalSocial champs? Will the brand land on a higher perch in the category? Popeyes TotalSocial Online score rose to its highest level in three years on the eve of the counter-attacks by Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A. Check back after Labor Day to see which brand is crowing, and which is eating crow.
Political Joke Explodes in Social Media, but Offline Clorox Conversations Have Been Building for MonthsWhen the CMO of Clorox said last year his marketing strategy was “trying to get people to have the right conversations” about his brands, he surely did not anticipate the phrase “Clorox the Oval Office” would enter the American lexicon during the Democratic Party presidential debates the following summer. In what was widely described as the “line of the night,” Senator Kristin Gillibrand of New York claimed her first act as president would involve applying the venerable bleach brand to the surfaces of the most powerful office in the land. Consumer conversations in social media exploded on her use of the suggestive phrase, more than doubling the brand’s previous social media high. As we reported last December, Clorox’s emphasis on conversation was already helping it to stand out in a category that is rarely a big topic of conversation—but they have been doing it in the real world, with steadily rising levels of offline conversation. Over the last two years, the brand had regularly been the topic of more than 40 million conversations per week, compared to about 30 million per week previously. Eric Reynolds, the Clorox CMO, said last October that he is changing the brand’s approach to marketing, to make it more “conversational.”
“There will be more marketing, but it’ll be less obvious. It’ll be more inside people’s lives. People are going to be going to their trusted networks for information, not their traditional media.” – Eric Reynolds, CloroxData from the TotalSocial platform demonstrate that the brand has had considerable success with its conversation strategy. Time will tell whether Clorox receives any lasting additional benefit from the New York Senator’s turn of phrase, either in terms of offline conversation or purchases. From the Senator’s perspective, the more pressing question is whether her memorable line has sufficiently boosted her profile to earn a spot on the debate stage in September. As of this writing, she has not yet reached the polling threshold required to qualify. Back in 1984, presidential candidate Walter Mondale memorably ripped-off the Wendy’s hamburger catch-phrase “Where’s the beef?” in a Democratic nomination debate but lost in the general election to Ronald Reagan. Meantime, the brand did extremely well. Wendy’s enjoyed a 31% increase in revenues based on the popular phrase.