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HomeCase StudiesWin-win: Carter gets his nuggs, Wendy’s gets spike in engagement

Win-win: Carter gets his nuggs, Wendy’s gets spike in engagement

The Ellen DeGeneres Show
Source: The Ellen DeGeneres Show


Over a five-week period beginning April 5, when Wendy’s challenged 16-year-old Carter Wilkerson from Reno, Nevada, to amass 18 million retweets to win a year’s worth of chicken nuggets, the brand reaped the benefits of a social media groundswell.

“We knew that the love for Wendy’s nuggets ran deep,” notes Frank Vamos, director of brand communications at Wendy’s, “but we didn’t expect the overwhelming response we’ve seen on Twitter to Carter’s love of nuggs.”

The response to #NuggsForCarter was enormous. Wendy’s earned 330 million social impressions and gained 149,000 new followers on Twitter. Other tweets from the brand also saw a lift in engagement, generating 280,900 retweets and 978,500 likes.

Wilkerson’s and #NuggsForCarter’s notoriety shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Wilkerson – eating chicken nuggets of course – appears in Katy Perry’s just released music video for her latest single, “Swish Swish,” alongside fellow social influencer of the year Doug the Pug.

The initial engagement stems from Wilkerson’s tweet requesting retweets to reach the 18 million mark. The “movement” received an onslaught of supporters — from large tech companies such as Apple and Microsoft, to Ellen DeGeneres, who good-naturedly lost her crown as having history’s most-retweeted post.

Although Wilkerson failed in his efforts to reach 18 million, he did garner 3.42 million retweets as of May 9, pushing him past Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie tweet, the previous record-holder. Wilkerson’s retweet count has since increased to over 3.7 million.

The Nevada teen tweeted about his record-breaking performance on May 9, as did Wendy’s.


Wilkerson’s effort was enough to impress Wendy’s, which is honoring his request for free nuggets for a year, as well as donating $100,000 in his name to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which finds homes for children in foster care. Wilkerson is raising money for the cause on his website,

The reaction is also due in part to Wendy’s social strategy with agency partner VML, which runs the brand’s much-heralded Twitter feed. If the brand hadn’t responded to Carter’s love of nuggs, there would be no #NuggsForCarter.

“Part of our brand voice is being a challenger with charm,” says Vamos, “so it helps guide our social team in engaging with our fans in very different ways that can help distinguish us.”

“Wendy’s has a long history of leveraging Twitter to communicate with people,” the San Francisco-based company notes in a blog post. “From the first-ever interactive March Madness bracket run entirely through Twitter’s direct messages to a livestreamed, behind-the-scenes look at how to make the Baconator featuring influencer Cody Johns, Wendy’s is consistently using their unique brand voice to connect with a wide audience.”

A playful tone

“What we aim for is a tone that is playful,” Liliana Esposito, Wendy’s chief communications officer, told PRWeek’s Frank Washkush. “That’s at the heart of the Wendy’s brand and has been since Dave Thomas founded the brand in 1969, which is to poke some fun at the conventional way of doing things. Whether that’s another brand or a common practice in the industry, we try to do that in a way that’s playful and charming, but gets our message across that we believe very strongly in our way of doing things.”

Social media falls under Wendy’s marketing group, but it’s closely meshed with communications. While the digital group within the marketing unit technically has ownership of social media, that team is “grounded in what is the appropriate brand voice for Wendy’s.” In other words, no politics, no bullying or profanity, and don’t be too mean to other brands or users.

However, that doesn’t mean the social media team is burdened by layer upon layer of approvals, Esposito says. “They have a tremendous amount of social license, and we empower them a lot because they have earned this trust,” she explains. “They know what the brand voice is, and they know what the guardrails are, so they engage in a friendly manner with our fans.”

Case in point: the April 5 Carter Wilkerson tweet requesting free chicken nuggets for a year.

Within two days, Wendy’s knew it had a bona fide social media phenomenon on its hands when he had already received a million retweets. Despite the attention, the brand’s strategy was largely to stay hands off, relying on its community managers’ gut instincts instead of a playbook to let the craze snowball on its own.



“I don’t think it’s an area where you can put a hard-and-fast rule of when this happens, you do this, and when that happens, you say that,” Esposito contends. “Clearly there are guardrails for what is appropriate for the brand, tone, and voice we want to have with our engagements, whether a playful topic such as this or a more serious topic.”

Behind the scenes, earned media also played a role in bringing #NuggsForCarter into the mainstream consciousness. Wendy’s communications team helped to secure mentions on Today and Ellen, and even sent a brand staffer to ensure Wilkerson’s family felt comfortable during the daytime talk-show appearance. Ketchum, Wendy’s longtime agency partner, helped monitor the craze on an hour-by-hour basis.



Wendy’s biggest question was when it would reward Wilkerson with a year’s worth of nuggets, even though he fell well short of the moonshot 18 million mark. It decided the magic moment would be when the student broke a different barrier: DeGeneres’ record for the most retweets.

“We didn’t want to make that announcement too early and lose that momentum,” Esposito explains. “At the same time, these things run their course, and there’s not an unlimited amount of public attention.”

In the end, Wendy’s was right on time. The campaign was not just a win for Wilkerson, whose wallet is heavier with special edition gift cards entitling him to 365 days’ worth of chicken nuggets, but also Wendy’s social media team, whose campaign was mentioned in the same breath as other social standouts such as Oreo’s Dunk in the Dark push during the Super Bowl XLVII blackout.

In terms of real-world impact, the biggest beneficiary was the cause nearest to the brand’s heart – adoption for children in foster care – as Wendy’s donated $100,000 in Wilkerson’s name to the Dave Thomas Foundation.


What we aim for is a tone that is playful. That’s at the heart of the Wendy’s brand, which is to poke some fun at the conventional way of doing things

Liliana Esposito, Wendy’s


“We quickly connected with Carter. He is a great kid from a great family and loves Wendy’s chicken nuggets, so we knew this was a good match and could be some fun,” notes Wendy’s CEO and president Todd Penegor. “The team jumped right on it and found great opportunities to amplify the message and to help #NuggsForCarter become the most retweeted of all time. The competition with Ellen was the right forum, and it took off from there.”

Yet did all the fleeting social media buzz actually pay off in real dollars and cents for Wendy’s? It’s hard to say how much of a role #NuggsForCarter played, but the company reported a 38% increase in Q2 profit, compared to the same period last year. Other indicators are also telling: the brand’s Twitter engagement was up 375% year-over-year during the #NuggsForCarter phenomenon, which came at the end of a busy stretch for the brand that included its first Super Bowl ad and social media jousts with accounts large (McDonald’s) and small (a fan who doubted the existence of refrigerators). The Twitter account for the Dave Thomas Foundation also saw a 10% increase in engagement during the craze.

Most promising for Wendy’s: of the 28 brand-health metrics it tracks, 21 trended positively, a marked improvement from a few years ago when none were, notes Esposito.

“When we see them moving in the right direction, it tells us we are doing something right,” she explains. “Ultimately, there is a bridge between ‘Do I think this brand is cool?’ and ‘That’s a restaurant I want to go to.’”


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