Arby’s Marketing and “Nerds” – An Analysis

Author: Bradley G., Public Relations Intern

While we at Intelligent Design Collaborative frequently write about the theory behind marketing and public relations efforts, we are also observers of the successes and failures of real-life companies in everyday life. With that in mind, we can step back and analyze what works and what doesn’t within the industry in real time: the specific subject of our analyses are based on the awareness and interest of our employees. For today, the subject of our article was discovered when we were looking at social media on our lunch break…

In an increasingly unstable world, the future market for fast-food restaurants has followed suit to become grim and uncertain. Information from Business Insider suggests that Millennials, the upcoming generation, are far less likely than previous generations to favor fast food [1]. Companies like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Arby’s are under pressure right now. Casual dining restaurants, such as Outback Steakhouse and Chipotle, are on the rise in both sales and public image, while their fast food counterparts on the decline.

How, then, did Arby’s, a beef-sandwich based fast food restaurant, defy the trend and see the more growth since 2015 than ever before [2]? The answer, we suggest, lies with their rebranding and social media campaigns, which capitalizes on posts like the one on the right.

Arby’s posts such as the one referencing the film Nightmare Before Christmas above routinely earn 2-12K favorites and retweets on Twitter [3] while the same Facebook posts receive anywhere from 10-100K likes and 2-30K shares [4]. Many who comment or reply to these posts say that they’re going to purchase food at Arby’s specifically because of Arby’s posts of this nature.

This likely leads you to ask both how this happened and why this happened. Over the course of this article, we’ll explain the context for Arby’s decision to redirect their marketing plan, the method by which they attract so many views, and the value of targeting a specific audience for their advertising campaign.

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Arby’s and Targeting the Future

Arby’s had a much more traditional marketing and social media system only a few years ago. The results of this during that time period were the decline in sales that other fast food restaurants are experiencing. This was turned around by their current CEO, Paul Brown, who spearheaded two new initiatives: the TV-based “We Have the Meats” ad campaign emphasizing the meaty nature of Arby’s products, and the new art-based social media campaign [2]. While we’re not focusing hugely on the tv-based campaign, it’s worth noting that the divergence between the more youth/pop culture oriented online presence of Arby’s and the masculine, more adult television presence of Arby’s is deliberate and understandable. The demographics of television are now anywhere from 10-20 years older than the average demographics of social media-- in other words, television audiences are mostly over 30, online audiences are mostly under 30. Diversifying how the company is advertised based on the platform without contradictory mocking of the other demographics is a fantastic way to conduct a multi-platform marketing campaign.

Returning focus to the social media campaign, until early 2016, the posts included more art than other companies, but the kinds of jokes and posts they were making about the art were commonplace. The launching point for the current, more nerdy brand came when Josh Martin, Arby’s Senior Director of Social Media, noticed that Arby’s social media brand seemed to be identical to other restaurants’ [7]. The big change in direction happened during the 2014 Grammys Music Awards, as Josh Martin recalls:

    “PR News lauded our use of social media, and the Real Time Academy of Short Form Arts & Sciences (which is like the Academy Awards for social media) awarded us the top prize for a cheeky tweet to music star Pharrell Williams that generated millions of impressions.” [6].

This Tweet to Pharrell Williams was the beginning of Arby’s more sarcastic, personable online presence, and from this point on, they knew they were going to change up their social media game. Arby’s knew that the more traditional posts got less shares or likes, as Millennials (the primary base for the internet) are hyper aware of when they’re being advertised to [2].

With this in mind, exactly how is it that Arby’s reached their current social media success and bolstered their customer base to being 54% composed of Millennials [2]? The answer, it turns out, didn’t simply appear from Arby’s Marketing Department.

Arby’s Social Media Art

To elaborate on the previous statement, Arby’s creative team is actually the external company Roar, who they hire to handle the creative artwork [7]. Roar was in charge of some of the more basic posts that Arby’s handled which implemented simplistic, restaurant themed art. An example of the early work can be found on the right.

While these kinds of posts got some recognition, it didn’t get even a fifth of their current posts. The turning point was when Martin consulted Roar after he was thinking about playing games when he was a kid, and they made this post referencing The Legend of Zelda series’ “Triforce," pictured on the left.

That post alone jumped up from their usual 500-1,000 retweets to over 4,000. Looking at that post, you see hundreds of fans of the game shocked and thrilled that a mainstream restaurant company was referencing video games without it being an ad for some kids’ toys. This, of course, makes sense: being a fast-food restaurant emphasizing masculinity and meat, Arby's whole target demographic is men aged 12-55. Nerds under the age of 35 or so are going to understand the "Legend of Zelda" reference, and any other gaming or cartoon references that the company makes are usually within the purview of their social media base, which is likely to mostly be Millennial men under 30, no small amount of which are apparently nerds. Seeing their success, Martin then had the company dip into other such products, such as the Assassin's Creed series and the Kingdom Hearts series, which found similar success.

These, of course, were also met with overwhelmingly positive success, so Martin got the idea to move out of the videogame market and test out some more cartoon properties that Millennials would be familiar with, such as Coraline (pictured to the right), King of the Hill, and the pictured above Nightmare Before Christmas.

All of these posts were very successful, earning thousands of engagements and promises of visits to Arby’s. If you haven’t already thought of it, we suggest that this raises an interesting question: why does this type of content resonate so much with this audience?

Niche Demographics - Recognizing Subculture

More important than the likes or shares that Arby’s get is the comments and feedback that they receive. Millennials in the comment section often say the same thing: “Arby’s has surprised me and delighted me by reaching out, I would like to eat at Arby’s to encourage this behavior” [5]. The reason for this is the feeling of camaraderie with the Arby’s brand.

Specifically targeting certain demographics and posting content that they feel is inclusive to them, told in a manner that they appreciate, and comes across as a natural form of interest is a surefire way to engage any customer. The niched nature of the “nerds” among the Millennial generation ensures that well coordinated attempts by mainstream companies to target them with advertising are more likely to work out solely on the principle that it’s done so infrequently. The company makes reference to all kinds of “nerd” based videogame properties and cartoons, but they also make reference to the much more niched genre of Japanese animation called “anime.” Posts like the one on the left reference to Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke, while other posts reference Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise and the ever popular adventure show, One Piece.

The posts, as you can see, get just as much or more recognition than their more mainstream counterparts on Arby’s social media or other traditional restaurant social media accounts. Niched demographics are happy that the people on the other end of the campaign have the same interests, or at least understand those interests, and genuine attempts to reach out to them and what they value is going to be met with positive results. The fact that Martin himself and many of the employees at Roar are gamers and fans of anime means it’s no coincidence that the posts resonate and make sense to these Millennial nerds. This means that they know what the fans are interested in, keep up with the culture enough to make topical references when the “Suicide Squad”[ movie releases [5] or when the Nintendo Switch console is announced [8], and have mastered the format to present it in without it feeling like a forced advertisement.

In short, Arby’s understands who they’re marketing to and how that demographic wants to be marketing to. That understanding, in and of itself, is the crux of all marketing campaigns. It is the key to Arby’s success.


In closing, we invite you to consider what Arby’s CEO Paul Brown has to say about the recent public relations successes:

    “How have we connected so strongly with these guests? We have embraced a marketing strategy that is bold, smart, funny, and highlights the authenticity of our food and our brand” [6].
Authenticity is a great word to describe what makes Arby’s social media campaign work. The ultimate goal of any social media campaign now is to engage customers without coming off as desperate for attention [7], and Arby’s has it down to a science. However, it’s not as though Arby’s is stuck on any certain formula, either. As H2H Consulting notes,

    “They take suggestions and value fan feedback. Many times the ideas for some of these creative video game themed Arby’s posts have come from the followers themselves. Arby’s has listened to fan feedback and created posts from their suggestions of what they would like to see Arby’s do” [5].
Arby’s is engaged, creative, understanding, and open to suggestion. They’ve connected with their base as much as any company can, and they’re always open to seeing what their social media art should portray next.

Arby’s holds a lesson for everyone in the field of marketing: you can connect to your demographic in ways you may not expect if you understand what engages and interests them. Finding a way to connect to a group within your target demographic that isn’t marketed to that often does the double work of encouraging purchases from that group and incentivizing them to talk about and share information about your business. A customer who buys once using a coupon online is good: a devoted customer who follows your social media and uses your services every week is much better.

Follow Arby’s example and see if you can find a group within your target demographic to speak to.

Remember: it’s dangerous to go alone.


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