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Would you like pics with that? How fast-food chains are appealing to customers' social feeds

As image-sharing platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat continue to flourish, Janna Zittrer Appleby uncovers how fast-food brands are cooking up new ways to make their menu items and restaurant locations more photo-friendly

A burger's appeal has never really been its looks. Though advertisements showcase fat beef patties, crisp lettuce and rounds of perfectly ripe tomatoes on a caramel-coloured bun, most people don't actually expect to get a picture-perfect meal when they place an order at a fast-food chain. Customers generally relied on the meal's taste appeal, not the way it photographed, which worked out fine for businesses for decades – until customers began ritually snapping and 'gramming their meals before taking a bite.

While the food industry continues to spend billions of dollars on marketing each year, 92 per cent of consumers, according to Nielsen, believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising. Such word-of-mouth marketing is increasingly happening on social media platforms such as Facebook (with more than two billion active users), Snapchat (178 million-plus) and Instagram (800 million and counting).

Today's young adults, often referred to as the "visual generation," can be credited – or blamed – for ushering in an era in which images often speak louder than words. And quick-service restaurants are having to employ new tactics to stay in the game. This doesn't necessarily mean finding new ways to plate old classics such as the Big Mac. Rather, companies are thinking outside the proverbial box, looking to make an impact on social media with everything from revitalized restaurant decor to behind-the-scenes peeks into the kitchen. Ultimately, they're looking to provide customers with unique experiences as much as nourishment.

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"Given that social media is an undeniably key marketing tool now, it would be foolish for quick-service chains to ignore its importance," says Heather Lalley, editor of emerging concepts for Chicago-based Restaurant Business magazine. "That means menuing items that are not just aesthetically pleasing, but also buzz-worthy. Anything that can get people talking and generate traction via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and more should be the goal."

McDonald’s harnesses everything from internet holidays to Snapchat filters to give its digital presence a personalized touch.

Not surprisingly, one of the most successful fast-food chains on social media is also one of the most recognizable brands in the world. With millions of followers across dozens of national accounts, McDonald's harnesses everything from internet holidays to Snapchat filters to give its digital presence a personalized touch. Last July, for example, McDonald's Canada live-streamed one of its French fry stations for more than an hour and half in honour of National French Fry Day, garnering more than 750,000 views across multiple channels. Though the stunt wasn't particularly appealing to the eye, "Some people watched [the video] for more than 15 minutes straight because they were 'mesmerized,'" says Rashel Hariri, digital social-engagement manager at McDonald's Canada, adding that the far more photogenic fry-themed swag they were giving away on Twitter ran out in less than an hour.

To maximize its social reach, McDonald's Canada regularly teams up with digital influencers such as Toronto-based style blogger Alexander Kenton Liang. Liang isn't concerned that his relationship with the fast-food chain might taint his meticulously crafted image. "I love McDonald's, and my work with them actually came about after I posted on Instagram Stories about going through their drive-through one day," he says. "The opportunity to partner with a huge global brand like McDonald's was a no-brainer for me. Not to mention, they do have some fashion appeal, thanks to Jeremy Scott's Fall 2014 collection for Moschino," he adds, referencing the designer's Ronald McDonald-meets-high-fashion runway looks.

Taco Bell recently introduced the limited-edition Naked Chicken Chips, which have topped 8.7 million impressions on Facebook within Canada.

Taco Bell is another quick-service chain keeping its visual appeal top of mind, both with new novelty dishes and fresh decor. Building off the 2017 success of its Naked Chicken Chalupa (the taco with a fried-chicken shell), the Tex-Mex chain recently introduced Naked Chicken Chips, a limited-edition box of triangle-shaped chicken tenders served with nacho cheese dipping sauce that has topped 8.7 million impressions on Facebook within Canada. The brand has also seen an 18-per-cent growth in sales since the limited-edition menu item launched on Jan. 8, exceeding its goal of 15 per cent. Taco Bell is currently rolling out new restaurants with an elevated look and feel as well. Photogenic features include colourful murals developed in collaboration with local artists, retro-looking chairs, industrial-inspired light fixtures and open-concept kitchen windows. "While quick-service restaurant brands have traditionally operated with a 'grab and go' mentality, we understand that our customers are looking for more," says Veronica Castillo, head of marketing and R&D at Taco Bell Canada.

For New York-based Shake Shack, tapping into social influence means creating experiences worth boasting about. To wit, the burger chain opened a one-day pop-up last year at Momofuku Daisho in Toronto. The chance for a taste – and #burgerporn bragging rights – was hard for local foodies to resist. Although the doors opened at half past noon, by 9:45 a.m., people were lined up around the block.

Shake Shack’s one-day pop-up at Momofuku Daisho in Toronto last year attracted a long line, which reached around the block.

Long lines are practically synonymous with Shake Shack, a fact the brand not only acknowledges but capitalizes on as well. Last June, for instance, Shake Shack teamed up with entertainment company Quiet Events to host a free "silent dance party" for customers waiting in line at its Madison Square Park flagship. For two hours on a Friday afternoon, hungry patrons were given wireless headphones so they could listen to music as they made their way up to the ordering counter. "It's about asking ourselves, 'How can we make every experience that you have with us interesting, unique and engaging?'" says Kristyn Clark, senior manager of brand communications at Shake Shack.

Giving customers something more than food to consume is increasingly imperative when you consider the numerous reports in recent years declaring that millennials prefer experiences over things. That's why, in 2017, KFC Canada launched the KFC Cooking School, which provides customers with a behind-the-scenes look at how a bucket of KFC is made, along with step-by-step instructions on how to prepare a KFC meal of their own.

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Vancouver-based Adam Schellenberg, senior producer at Capitol Media House, attended such a class last March in Abbotsford, B.C. "I went half as a joke and half because I love fried chicken," he says. "The KFC corporate reps running the event seemed completely in on the ridiculous nature of the class, but they were totally open and answered whatever question was asked."

Schellenberg adds: "I shared my experience on both Facebook and Reddit, and overall it definitely made me think of KFC in a more progressive light."

In today's "pics or it didn't happen" world, satisfying the hunger for shareable content just might be as important as serving something good to eat.

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