Potbelly: Feed Your Smile

Growing up, there was no part of the school day more coveted than lunch hour. It was the moment between 8am and 3:15pm where socialization among peers was uninhibited by classroom rules. We would use this time to recount the latest episode from previous nights’ most popular show, catch up on the latest grade school gossip, and simply enjoy the recess from scholastic pressure. We experienced this slice of utopia from elementary school all the way through college. Who knew it would come to a screeching halt with the onset of contemporary adulthood?

Let’s face it, lunch hour just ain’t what it used to be. Those happy days, my friend, are gone. The cultural changes in lunch time behavior have seen fewer and fewer Americans leaving their desks for their midday meal and a slice of happiness. This created both a challenge and opportunity for our client, Potbelly, a 40-year-old sandwich shop whose food and quirks garnered a deep love for the brand. For QSRs like Potbelly, lunch is the busiest time for their restaurants, and a softening of traffic during this day-part has a tremendous impact on their business. To curb this, Potbelly would have to create new catalysts to drive store traffic.

This, however, would be no easy feat. Potbelly does not spend a lot of dollars on media and communications. With only 450 shops around the country, Potbelly was being outspent by their competitors in the market — in most cases by two orders of magnitude when compared to the Subway’s of the world. Combined with the rapid growth of the QSR category, due to more and more sandwich shop competitors seeking out would-be lunch goers, Potbelly was finding it increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd. Of the 1.4M sandwich brand conversations in a 12-month period on social, only 2% of those conversations were about the Potbelly brand. This meant that if Potbelly was going to break through and establish meaningful connections with lunch goers, the brand has to give people something to talk about. Easier said than done. To help Potbelly overcome these hurdles, we figured we’d start with its soul, and use the brand’s conviction to play a role in people’s lives beyond the products it sells. The conviction was pretty simple — Potbelly exists to make people really happy. However, no one outside the company knew what the brand stood for because it hardly communicates it, and certainly didn’t demonstrate it overtly. We saw this as a great opportunity for the brand to not only “zag to the zig” of the crowded QSR category but also connect with humanity. And if the brand is committed to ‘making people really happy’ then it ought to do just that — make people really happy. So we sought out moments of “unhappy” and made it our mission to remove them in ways that were uniquely Potbelly.

We started by associating the email addresses and corresponding Twitter handles of Potbelly’s most ravenous customers. The thought was that if we could find what these people had in common beyond their love for Potbelly sandwiches, then we could possibly identify a cultural driver for the brand to connect with them beyond “the bread.” Of the 360K email addresses, we were able to match 60K Twitter handles. We then used Crimson Hexagon, an AI-powered consumer insight platform, to analyze these individuals’ social conversations to uncover similarities. Of the 60K Twitter handles analyzed, we found that these people disproportionately shared Soundcloud files, and at an unusually high rate. On the surface, that doesn’t sound so discriminating. Who doesn’t love music, right? Considering the size of Soundcloud, relative to the Spotify's and YouTube's of the world, we felt this was quite selective. Not to mention, this proved to be fertile territory for the brand, if for no other reason then the fact that Potbelly enlists live musicians to play in their shops during lunch hour. This gave the brand permission to use music as a means to connect with their customers in a way in which their competitors could not.

At this point, marketers would typically generate creative ideas around this territory, present them to the client, and then test the creative in focus groups to see how it made people feel. However, the behavioral sciences have proven time and time again that self-reported data can be biased, if not simply flawed. Potbelly is not a big spender on marketing and media, so we didn’t have the luxury of potentially be wrong. We had to reduce risk wherever possible. Since we couldn’t outspend the competition, we’d have to outsmart them. To do this, we partnered with Michigan State University’s Media and Advertising Psychology Lab to see if we could really make people happy. Instead of asking respondents how they feel about the content recommendations we prepared for Potbelly, we asked their bodies, observing their psychophysiological responses to the content stimuli. With our academic partners, we exposed respondents to the proposed Potbelly content in a simulated Facebook environment and tracked their cardio, respiratory, sweat gland, facial expression, and eye-tracking responses. This allowed us to not only better understand how people might truly respond to the proposed content but also how they may feel when we consider the associated psychological drivers that led to their physiological responses.

With the psychophysiological study to inform our creative efforts, we were all set to “make people really happy” and feed some smiles. To start, we set our sights on arguably the most unhappy place ever — Twitter. Whether it be complaints, laments, rants, or outright anger, Twitter can be full of bad vibes. Using social listening tools like Crimson Hexagon, we identified 100 unhappy tweets and responded to them with100 original songs performed by improve musicians, in real-time, on one day. The results were tremendous. We generated 10x more brand engagement than the brand had ever experienced on one-day, produced 20x more Twitter followers than the brand normally acquires on a given day, and reached 12 million people during the one-day activation.

But most importantly, we made people really, really happy.

To scale the happiness, we then developed an algorithm that synthesized weather and traffic data, results from major sporting events, and social media happenings across key DMAs to find the most unhappy cities that could use some good vibes. Subsequently, we delivered a little happiness in the form of smile-inducing content every morning throughout the month of June to the people who needed it most. Massive traffic jam on the Dan Ryan in Chicago, torrential downpour in DC, or a big loss for the Rangers would trigger the algorithm — what we called the “Smile Scale” — and we’d identify the right kind of happy to deliver to the right people in those regions programmatically using Facebook and Instagram’s sophisticated targeting tools. As a result, we generated a huge lift in store traffic leading to a 1.4% sales increase in the first sixty days of launch. After the entirety of the campaign, we reached 16 million people and stimulated 800K relevant social engagements. That’s a whole lot of happy for roughly 45K in media spend.

For a competitor brand with challenges at every turn, we helped Potbelly leverage the possibilities of today’s hyper-connected world and the insights of behavioral science to understand people better and create more powerful consumer connections. All of which enabled Potbelly to increase brand engagements by demonstrating its commitment to making people really happy — by actually making people really happy.

Check it!

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