Fast food marketing: Why do brands keep getting it wrong?

Have you noticed a pattern developing in the marketing world? In recent months, a host of global food brands have all launched campaigns that have misfired dramatically and caused significant consumer backlash.

From Pepsi’s misplaced politics to Walkers’ serial killer selfies, we’ve delved into Starcount’s data to understand how and why these campaigns went wrong – and what the brands should do to avoid future disasters.


The campaign

The ‘Walkers Wave’ campaign asked social media users to respond to a tweet from the official Walkers Crisps Twitter account with a selfie, using the hashtag #WalkersWave as part of the chance to win tickets to the Champions League final. The user’s picture would then be incorporated into a personalized video, featuring ambassador Gary Lineker, automatically tweeted and captioned by Walkers.

The original aim of the campaign was to tap into the enthusiasm shown by fans around match nights. Adam Warner, head of UEFA Champions League sponsorship at PepsiCo, said of the campaign: “At Walkers, we celebrate the fans who love the social occasion around UEFA Champions League match nights as much as the games themselves. Moments that bring fans together like a fan wave are an important part of a football game.” Although, ultimately, the campaign really did bring fans together, it happened in a way the brand hadn’t anticipated.

Unfortunately for Walkers, the brand forgot the lesson of ‘Boaty McBoatface’* and failed to consider the British public’s notoriously dark sense of humour. Sensing a loophole, social media users began to reply with photos of notorious criminals and condemned celebrities, leading to Walkers pulling the campaign altogether.

*The story of Boaty McBoatface

Where did they go wrong?

Walkers weren’t wrong to opt for a campaign based around social media; almost 10% of the Walkers audience actively create online content (nearly 3 times the UK average), indicating that a significant chunk of Walkers fans are happy putting themselves out there online.

However, while they don’t mind sharing a tweet or two, social media stars as a whole aren’t very important to this group and they don’t have any aspirations to become online celebrities themselves. What’s more, their key passions indicate that they prefer real-world experiences such as shopping and visiting theme parks to digital interactions.

Most notably, football doesn’t appear as a key passion for the Walkers audience, despite Gary Lineker’s long-term association with the brand. Without a love of the beautiful game driving them to win the Champions League final tickets in the first place, the Walkers audience had no reason to play by the rules of the campaign. If Walkers want to encourage emotional loyalty, they first need to understand what their customers genuinely love and adjust their marketing accordingly, rather than creating a strategy around something that doesn’t reflect their audience’s interests. 


The campaign

Pepsi’s now infamous advert was released in April 2017. Starring Kendall Jenner, it shows the model stepping away from a photo shoot to join a passing protest filled with young and diverse protesters. The crowd cheers after Jenner stops to hand a can of Pepsi to a police officer, who accepts it with a smile. The advert was both criticized and mocked on social media for appearing to capitalise on social justice campaigns such as the Black Lives Matter movement, leading to Pepsi quickly pulling it from the air.

Where did they go wrong?

While her millions of followers across social channels might have made her seem like a safe bet for the brand, Kendall Jenner wasn’t necessarily the strongest choice to front Pepsi’s campaign. Starcount’s insight shows that Jenner is only the 315th most important influencer to Pepsi’s global audience, even appearing lower than her sister Kylie, who is 298th on the list.

Musicians are far more important to Pepsi’s audience than models, with David Guetta, Jennifer Lopez, Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift heading up the list, alongside previous Pepsi ambassadors Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

Pepsi’s campaign attempted to tap into the politically-heated era and send a message of solidarity to ‘woke’ millennials. However, when we look at Pepsi’s own audience, politics is only their 77th most important passion, easily outweighed by a host of other interests and activities including eating out, shopping, technology, music, film and gaming. By treating all millennials as one collective group with shared characteristics, Pepsi have neglected the genuine passions and motivations of their own, specific audience. The result? A very public misfire.


The campaign

McDonald’s TV advert of May 2017 featured a young boy finding common ground with his deceased father over a Filet-O-Fish – a storyline that received a myriad of complaints and resulted in the brand pulling the ad from the air. Criticism of the advert has been rife on social media, while it has also been condemned by bereavement charities for trivialising such a serious issue. A McDonald’s spokesperson told the BBC: “This was by no means an intention of ours. We wanted to highlight the role McDonald’s has played in our customers’ everyday lives – both in good and difficult times.”

Where did they go wrong?

McDonald’s was attempting to tap into customers’ emotions with its advert by showcasing universal experiences. However, rather than choosing death as a focus, the brand might have done better by opting for one of life’s more upbeat inevitabilities; the McDonald’s audience prefer light-hearted TV entertainment such as music shows, talent shows and cartoons, meaning that the advert would have seemed out of place amongst their usual fare.

The brand also has an unusually high proportion of younger customers, something they attempted to acknowledge by featuring a young protagonist in the advert. However, the majority of the McDonald’s audience will not yet have experienced loss of the kind portrayed in the campaign and so will struggle to relate to the storyline. This mismatch between audience and message suggests that McDonald’s would do better with a campaign tailored to the mindset of a specific audience, rather than trying to tap into the idea of ‘good and difficult’ emotions across the board.