Fueled by the internet, it was an interesting year marketing-wise for operators, with some finding success in viral moments and others being subjected to users’ seemingly never-ending wrath. Here’s a look back on some of the most memorable marketing moments of the past 12 months.
1. Szechuan Sauce shakeup
What began as a prime marketing opportunity for McDonald’s quickly turned into a pop culture misfire. After the Cartoon Network show “Rick and Morty” featured the chain’slong-discontinued Szechuan Sauce in an episode, McDonald’s seized the moment on social media and gave away a limited amount of the sauce, later announcing it would bring back the sauce for one day in celebration of the chain’s new Buttermilk Crispy Tenders.
McDonald’s grossly underestimated the turnout the one-day promo would bring, however, and stores ran out of the condiment while there were still lines around the block. In response, angry “Rick and Morty” fans blasted the chain on social media. In an effort to soothe fans’ woes, the chain immediately issued an apology via social media and later stated that the beloved sauce would return to restaurants this winter.
2. Brad’s wife
A question posted on Facebook that quickly went viral was another reminder for operators to never underestimate the power of the internet. After Cracker Barrel fired his wife, who was a server at the chain, Bradley Reid Byrd took to Facebook to publicly ask why she was dismissed after working there for 11 years. The post rapidly took off, with internet users creating memes and even an online petition demanding to know why Brad’s wife was let go.
Cracker Barrel has stayed quiet on the issue to this day and is still taking heat for the incident. While Brad’s original post happened at the end of February, people continue to bring up his wife on Cracker Barrel’s most recent social media posts.
3. Pass promos
Olive Garden’s popular Never Ending Pasta Pass reached new heights this year, with the pass selling out online in less than a second and reaping $2.2 million for the chain. While Olive Garden has been offering the pass since 2014, it upped the ante this year by offering two different pass options: a $100 option granting the owner unlimited servings of pasta between Sept. 25 and Nov. 19,and a $200 version that also included an all-expenses-paid eight-day tour of Italy. The chain offered only 50 of the latter.
4. Starbucks’ colorful Instagram bait
Love it or hate it, Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino took social media by storm this year. Offered for a mere seven days, the colorful drink quickly went viral as consumers raced to their nearest location to try the drink and subsequently post it on Instagram. Starbucks has since released more hyperlimited beverages as Instagram bait, including a Christmas Tree Frappuccino for the holidays, although none of them have reached the unicorn beverage’s level of fame.
5. Bloomin’ Onion conspiracy
This summer, a Twitter user tweeted a screenshot of a map showing that the positioning of five Outback Steakhouse locations suspiciously resembled a star. The tweet was retweeted over 119,000 times, with other users noticing a similar layout in their area, leading them to question whether the chain was plotting something malevolent. The tweets caught the attention of Outback, which made the most of the situation by playing along and posting a picture of its signature Bloomin’ Onion dish over the locations with the tweet "Plot twist. If the Bloomin' Onion is evil then we don't want to be nice." The tweet received over 3,000 retweets.