Inspired by the inexplicable virality of the Grimace Shake, Flight Story’s Pollyanna Ward has waded deep into TikTok to chart how the app is ripping up the rulebook of fast-food marketing.
Once upon a time, to drum up customers (and influencers), fast food restaurants focused on making their products look good from above. The ‘Instagram Aesthetic’ was all about bright, clean flat lays with perfectly placed food items that would give thumb scrollers FOMO. But now, the game has changed. TikTok has turned fast food content into a performative art, where every video needs to get the comments section fired up to create an impact.
The ‘TikTokification of fast food’ is changing minds and menus in ways you’d never even imagined. Here’s how.
Fast Food As A Prop
My quest started by examining the chaotic Grimace campaign from McDonald’s, which has had over 2.7bn views and counting. I ended up in a rabbit hole of ‘Grimace Lore’ YouTube videos and McDonald’s wiki pages to discover a creepy backstory to Grimace of McDonaldland… but that’s for the mega Maccie’s enthusiasts.
No, I wanted to see what got the mainstream crowd so hyped up, and the first thing that stood out was that this wasn’t an ordinary shake. It’s bright purple, topped with whipped cream, and contains ‘Grimace Syrup.’ The first creator to kickstart the trend, according to Know Your Meme, was Austin Frazier; their video gained over 3.6m views prompting thousands of people to get creative and upload their own versions.
However, this trend was actually inspired by Burger King. To celebrate the launch of the Spider-Verse film, they launched a red burger bun covered in black sesame seeds called the Spider-Verse Whopper as well as a Spider-Verse Sundae covered in red, blue and black toppings. Creators took these products, and after eating them, the ‘radioactive’ effects of the food turned them into Spider-Man, and in some cases, caused them to be involved in an accident caused by this ‘turn.’
These trends show us that if you want your product to become a prop to perform with, then it needs to be visually striking. I think that grabbing attention in this instance requires making your product unique and visibly different.
The next theme is the act of ordering fast food above and beyond what the menu offers. This can involve mashing food items together, swapping out items or even simply taking the order a step too far.
The latter is exhibited particularly well by this user who took their Subway sandwich order to the extreme by asking the staff to literally drown her sandwich in sauce. ‘It needs to be oozing’ is the request as viewers watch in horror as the sub becomes seemingly inedible.
This same tactic has been used by Chipotle customers who have uploaded videos to TikTok requesting ‘The Quad,’ where they ask for four wraps instead of the standard one and pile on toppings until it requires two people to close the burrito. This request is filmed and shared on TikTok so that audiences can also witness this spectacle being created.
Another example, again by a Subway customer, shows their Subway Pizza order which features an extraordinary number of toppings that got the comments section excited to go and order their own.
These customization videos all look to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable to order, but come with a stark warning: while these videos generate orders for the brands, they end up hurting the productivity of the staff and, in some cases, can lead to ingredients selling out and affecting the availability of standard menu items for other customers.
At the less extreme end of menu hacking, we have examples like the one below by a Joe and The Juice customer who inadvertently ended up sparking the #tunacado trend (183m views and counting) by adding their own sauce back home.
Further examples of more accessible customization are also found in viral videos of KFC nuggets being drizzled in a mix of hot sauce and honey sauce before being shaken in the box they came in to create a whole new flavor dimension. This is also seen in videos with people pouring ketchup over their McDonald’s nuggets and shaking the box for an even coating of flavor.
What we’re seeing here is that fast food can be something to experiment with. TikTok has given people a platform to customize, personalize, and hack their food, and in turn, every video about your product ends up with a totally different or unexpected outcome. It’s appealing to users on the platform because it allows them to share something about their identity too; quirky, unique, even dangerous if they can shock and divide and opinion…
These trends can be found cropping up for a variety of reasons, from ‘ex-employees,’ ‘fast food insiders,’ and even people who’ve had to swap an item out due to an intolerance. Whatever the reason for these videos, it is clear that brands from KFC to Wingstop to Waffle House have benefited from these menu hacks, and while they’re not predictable, having a plan in place with your stores to meet sudden new demands is essential to avoid disappointment.
Tingling the Senses
‘Eat with our ears’ is a phrase I never thought I’d write, but here we are. According to an article on Glanbia Nutrition, this phenomenon is so described because ‘Sound provides heightened engagement with the food that can lead to a more satisfying eating experience.’
McDonald’s is well aware of sound’s importance in food and launched a crispier version of their McChicken Sandwich: The McCrispy. They dramatized the ‘crunch’ and ‘crispiness’ of this new burger through high production value TV and social advertising. The response? Over 100m views were generated by creators going out and just buying the product to show people how crispy it is.
Other uses of audio can be found on Five Guys’ TikTok channel, which slaps in terms of fast food content. In every video, the food is sizzling, melting, or crunching. It doesn’t even matter if the content isn’t specifically about the food – for example, employees talking about their jobs are always grilling or sizzling something to keep you salivating.
Wingstop also gets this and posts five-second clips of its wings being dunked in sauce, drizzled with sauce, and covered in parmesan cheese. It’s little moments of pure food porn that has the comments section going wild with people desperate to get their hands on these menu items.
We’re seeing the influence of TikTok’s sound on a full-screen environment that can immerse viewers across their senses more than any other social app.
If Instagram got us to ‘eat with our eyes,’ then TikTok has called us to ‘eat with our ears.’
So, here’s why it matters
When we think of the ‘TikTokification’ of things, we think of ‘the best bit’ or ‘the catchy bit,’ the hook that gets people addicted to ‘the thing.’ I know that it’s not enough to say that finding your ‘catchy bit’ will make you go viral, so I invite you to check out the following stats from research by MGH to support your shift to TikTokifying your fast food socials:
72% have checked out new places to eat based on the appearance of food on the app.
38% have visited a restaurant after seeing it on TikTok
45% attributed their reason for visiting based on a ‘unique food item’
When your boss asks you to ‘do a Grimace Shake’ trend, here’s what you need to think about:
Find ways to supercharge the colors of your product to take it from generic burgers and fries to Hollywood movie status.
Challenge creators to ‘menu hack’ your restaurant to create divisive or exciting content. (If in doubt, I always recommend to clients that rummaging through TikTok comments is a hugely untapped source of unexpected content ideas *ahem* menu hacks…)
Food cannot just sit there. It needs to perform. Make it sizzle, crunch, ooze. Tingle the senses and make it seem like the food is in front of your viewers.
And if you’re not willing to consider any of these changes, you might be about to enter your flop era…
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