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Pathmatics Blog

To beef, or not to beef? Digital ad strategies of the top burger brands

August 08 2019 by William Merchan
Shake Shack Facebook AD Online
Shake Shack Facebook AD Online

How are OG burger joints and their plant-based counterparts taking on digital ? Read on to find out.

Burgers are a staple in American culture. But how often do you see an ad for your favorite burger joint while perusing the internet? That question, along with The Habit’s recent decision to shake up their digital strategy, got us thinking: What is going on in the world of the fast-casual burger chain, and will the recent rise in “meatless meat” change their approach?  

Read on to find out how The Habit, In-n-Out Burger, and Shake Shack have taken on advertising in the digital age, and how rising meatless-meat stars Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat plan to shake things up in the beef-heavy burger industry. 


The Habit breaks tradition with new ad strategy 

In the wake of The Habit’s partnership with advertising agency Innocean USA as their Agency of Record on July 23rd, the burger chain may be throwing in the towel on their traditional advertising practices to adopt a more modernized approach. According to restaurant news, The Habit hopes to redefine their brand voice and creative strategies in order to better relate to today’s consumers --- a strategy meant to strengthen the level of competition against their top competitors, like In-n-Out Burger and Shake Shack. 

Habit Facebook Ad

The global news wire reaffirms how a renewed focus on digital may help connect the brand with their current -- and future-- customers. Accordingly, the Habit has been largely investing in marketing and digital platforms, substantially increasing their social creatives within the last week according to data from Pathmatics Explorer.

Habit Spend trend


How Burger Brands Compete in the Digital Age

As The Habit considers new marketing strategies to propel their business, the West coast-based restaurant, In-n-Out Burger, has taken a more traditional route. Despite having restaurants in only 5 US states, the local burger spot has become a go-to for many tourists and out of state visitors because of its low price point, fresh ingredients, made-to-order business model, and secret menu.

In-N-Out Ad

While many West Coast-ers have heard In-n-Out’s catchy jingle on the radio (That’s what a hamburger’s all about!), much of their popularity and growth can be traced back  to longevity, brand loyalty and word of mouth--not their ad strategy. An article by referral candy conveys that this strategy directly influences the brand’s marketing budget, allowing it to be significantly lower than competing fast food restaurants. 

Accordingly, In-n-Out’s use of digital advertising is almost nonexistent. When was the last time you saw an ad for In-n-Out Burger on social platforms? Most likely, never. For the small amount the burger brand does advertise on digital, they focus the majority of their budget on desktop display, with a few mobile display ads in their arsenal as well. 


In-N-Out Spend trend

Regardless of the burger restaurants lack of digital marketing, they continue to strongly compete with rival chains, as their traditional practices proceed to win over the hearts, and appetites, of customers around the country. 


How Shake Shack wins over millennials 

Shake Shack Facebook AD Online

As The Habit contemplates an upgrade in their marketing tactics, In-n-Out holds steady to tradition. Some brands, however, have followed their target audience into the digital age, turning to social media and other digital platforms to reach their target audience. 

Following their IPO and major rebrand in 2015, New York-based burger joint Shake Shack fully embraces digital. According to the chain’s marketing and communications director, Edwin Bragg, the brand’s social media expansion was inspired in part by the brand’s already high social engagement. A recent article on Digiday reveals how relatable humor and social media references, including their witty Twitter responses, have enabled Shake Shack to successfully increase their customer engagement on social media amongst millennials. In relation, Pathmatics data illustrates just how much Shake Shack has increased their social creatives--- by over 100% in just the last year  --- reaching a high spend of over $180k to maintain this constant engagement.


Shake Shack Spend trend

Shake Shack Spend by Month


Lettuce talk about plant-based meats ;)

Millennials and Generation Z alike have grown up with the notion that sustainability is paramount, and the food industry has taken note. As of late, even the traditional meat-focused burger joints have learned that in order to be competitive in today’s market, sustainable “meat” is a must. 

Impossible Facebook Ad

Luckily for major plant-based brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats, this means that aside from each brand’s own digital ad strategies, their partnerships with some of the biggest fast food chains give them even more bang for their buck.

A look at Impossible Foods’ digital advertising strategy (or lack thereof) aligns with the statement by the brand’s COO Rachel Konrad revealing how the brand neglects conventional advertising in exchange for earned media in an effort to let the product, and the company’s message of sustainability, speak for itself.

Accordingly, a look at Impossible Foods in Explorer shows less than $50k in spend YTD (and all on Facebook, at that). What that doesn’t include, however, is Impossible’s impressive restaurant partnerships, and the dollars these advertisers put behind their own efforts to spread the word about their meatless options. Impossible Meat has already been implemented at Burger King, with the new “Impossible Whopper” showing up at the burger chain’s various 7,200 locations in the US alone. Ultimately, Burger King has increased their spend by over $500k towards the promotion of their Impossible burger, garnering 8% of their views. 

Burger King Tour Ad

Another plant based meat brand includes the billion dollar company, Beyond Meat. 

Inc news relays the purpose of the plant based brand from its founder, Ethan Brown, who conveys the need “to figure out a way to get the animal out of the process and continue to provide meat to people in a way that’s more sustainable.” 

Carls Jr Ad

Similar to Impossible Meats, Beyond Meat has already influenced many fast food chains to join the fight for more sustainable agricultural practices. Since January 1st, more than a thousand Carl’s Jr. restaurants have been selling ‘Beyond Meats burgers,’ as stated by the Inc news article. Carl’s Jr has channeled a significant amount of over $100k towards Beyond Meats burger advertisements, attaining over 49% of their total impressions.


Which brand strategy will make the difference?

Data from Pathmatics flagship product, Explorer, illustrates how many creatives each brand-- beef and plant-based--have released since the beginning of the year. From the looks of it, The Habit joins the fight with a newly aggressive approach,  delivering the largest amount of creatives. Shake Shack follows in second, with their social media growth, followed by the plant-based meats and lastly, In-n-Out brings us home with their unique word-of-mouth strategy. 


Spend Comparison and Creatives Burgers

As various brands utilize different marketing strategies and brand messages, competition for public approval and brand growth only increases. It will be interesting to see in the upcoming months which brands --beef or plant-based-- will garner the most attention and sales. 

Anyone hungry for a burger yet? Log on to Pathmatics Explorer and keep up to date with which brands have the best advertising strategies!

About Author
William Merchan

William Merchan is a data science, marketing analytics, advertising technology and startup veteran. He currently serves as chief revenue officer at marketing intelligence company Pathmatics, where he is responsible for brand growth and awareness. Previously, William built products and grew teams at DataScience.com, MarketShare and Yahoo!. He holds a BS in Business from the University of California Berkeley and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.

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