Chicken Nuggets of Truth

A brand’s voice on social media carries a lot of weight these days. My partner Jim told me this story the other day, and I asked him to write it down:

On Saturday, my seventeen-year-old daughter surprised me by suggesting that she’d like Wendy’s chicken nuggets for lunch. You may need a little more information to understand why that’s surprising. We live in Portland, Oregon, which means that she’s grown up hearing from teachers and friends that big food companies are evil and that if you are going to eat a chicken you should be able to confirm that it was raised free and happy. Ideally you should know what it ate, where it was born and even what its name was. That’s not just a Portlandia joke. That kind of attitude is in the air here. She’s also a teenager, which means she’s routinely seething with righteous indignation and anger at the many injustices of the world. Last time I’d checked, she was dead set against all fast-food chains as exploiters of animals, despoilers of the environment and oppressors of working-class people. Believe me, it’s made eating on family vacations very difficult.

So, as I said, I was surprised. I’m sure I should have just taken it as a gift and picked up the nuggets without comment, but I was curious.

“I thought you didn’t like fast-food chains?” I said, trying to sound casual.

“Wendy’s is different,” she told me. “The food is better.”

“How do you know?” I asked. “You’ve only ever eaten there once and that was under protest.”

“Geeze, Dad! That was a million years ago. I eat there with my friends all the time.”

“Since when?”

I don’t know how to write that sound teenagers make when they roll their eyes and cough air up into the roof of their mouth to indicate that someone has just said something unbelievably, monumentally uninformed, but that was her response. Which is odd because there is no Wendy’s remotely close to her school, she doesn’t drive yet, and neither do her friends. I’m pretty sure she’s has not eaten there any time recently.

“Since always. They’re hilarious.”

“They are,” my younger daughter chimed in.

Again, I was flabbergasted. Usually, any chiming in between my girls is just a thinly veiled opening volley in their ongoing war over who wore whose article of clothing without asking first. But this time, it was support.

“Want to see some hilarious videos of their tweet burns?” the little one asked. She wrestled away my phone and showed me two YouTube compilations of Wendy’s tweets with a total of more than nine million views between them. That’s not an exaggeration. They literally have more than nine million views. And both my daughters laughed together over them, agreeing that Wendy’s is the best and that other fast-food brands look ridiculous when they try to “clap back.” Who could argue in the face of evidence like that?

I drove the three of us out to Wendy’s. We all got nuggets, and they tasted as delicious as only fast food can, but I was impressed again by how much the girls enjoyed the food and how vocal they were about it being waaaaaay better than competitive offerings.

Of course, this made me think of Coca-Cola and wine and detergent. Not physically mixed together. That would be gross (and possibly fatal). No, I mean neuroscience experiments around how the taste of Coke and wine and the efficacy of detergent are powerfully influenced by the story playing in your head.

Have you heard of the Pepsi Paradox? The term comes from a neuroscience experiment that was conducted in 2004. Subjects were asked to blind taste test Pepsi and Coke while having their brains scanned in an MRI machine. During these tests, most people reported preferring the flavor of Pepsi, and their brains lit up (showed increased activity) in an area called the ventral putamen, which is associated with pleasure and reward. However, when the exact same people were tested a second time and were able to see the labels of the products they were drinking, almost all of them switched their preference to Coke, and a different region of their brains lit up as well—the medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with self-image and identity. In other words, when people felt connected to the brand, the product tasted better to them.

While various folks have tried to poke holes in the Pepsi Paradox over the intervening fourteen years, further neuroscience experiments have continued to validate the power of the prefrontal cortex to change our perceptions of “rational” attributes like flavor and efficacy. For example, a study about the taste of wine and how it is impacted by price was widely reported in 2015. In the study, participants were asked to taste wine samples and rate their flavor while undergoing an MRI scan. The samples were identified only by price. Respondents reported that the more expensive wines tasted better than the cheaper ones, although all the samples were of the exact same wine. In fact, the respondents were not lying! According to the MRI results, the reward and pleasure centers of their brains (as well as their tricky prefrontal cortexes) lit up more strongly when they tasted the wines they believed were more expensive, indicating that they took more pleasure in the taste of these wines. In other words, when people believe something is likely to be better, it actually is.

Another great example is the laundry-detergent experiment in which participants were asked to take home three different boxes of laundry detergent, use them all for a few weeks and then report back on which was best and why. One box was mostly yellow, one was mostly blue, and one was a mix of yellow and blue. At the end of the trial period, the respondents overwhelmingly favored the detergent in the yellow and blue box. They backed up their preference with detailed notes about the superior efficacy and performance of that detergent. None of the respondents mentioned the box as a factor in their choice, but, of course, the box was the only difference between the detergents.

“These nuggs sweep Micky Dee’s nuggs under rugs,” my twelve-year-old announced from the back seat of the car, reminding me it was probably better to concentrate on my driving than on neuroscience experiments (despite their relevance). Knowing the science, I didn’t argue with her. There’s probably no way to objectively and definitively establish the relative rug-sweeping abilities of one brand of chicken nuggets over another, but that doesn’t really matter. Wendy’s social-media voice has both my daughters identifying with the brand and recognizing it as more valuable from a social-currency perspective than other brands. And those factors are literally making the food taste better to them. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a tremendously good use of social media and a great reason for any brand to think deeply about its personality and voice when relating to its audience.

“Nuggs under rugs! That’s a good burn,” my seventeen-year-old congratulated her. “You should tweet that to them.”

“Can I get a twitter?” the twelve-year-old demanded of me.

“You have to be thirteen,” I told her. I’m not sure if that’s literally true, but I’m sure the science will support that I think it should be.

From my point of view, the research Jim cites is a dramatic example of the use of data to validate the power of story. I am eager to know if you have other examples from your own experience.

And, to be clear, we are not taking credit for the brilliant use of social media by Wendy’s. We did do a Character Camp for Wendy’s a few years ago, but the story framework of a brand is only the foundation for great storytelling. The Wendy’s brand team and its agency partners have done all the heavy lifting to bring that story to life so effectively.