Shake Shack’s marketing head Edwin Bragg explains how the burger chain keeps its fans engaged

Clarion Pictures

“Authenticity” is one of the marketing industry’s buzzwords du jour, but it’s not always easy for brands – particularly big ones – to stay true to their roots and engage with fans in meaningful ways.

Yet despite going public two years ago and expanding internationally, Shake Shack still prides itself on maintaining a local, personalized feel at all of its restaurants, something that has helped the brand achieve success over the past 12 years.

While Shake Shack is relatively small compared to some of its competitors – the chain recently opened up its 100th location, while Five Guys has more than 1,000 locations in the US alone – it has amassed a massive and loyal fan base that loves to post about and interact with the brand on social media. Despite its significantly smaller size, Shake Shack has more than 300,000 followers on Instagram, while Five Guys has less than 60,000.

At the ANA Masters of Marketers conference in Orlando, Shake Shack’s vice president of marketing and communications Edwin Bragg explained how the company manages to stay personalized and engage with fans even as it grows at a fast clip.

“We’re always thinking about how we make people feel. It’s so important to make a good first impression and enter a community right,” said Bragg. “We have a motto at Shake Shack: the bigger get we get, the smaller we need to act.”

Engagement on social

Part of Shake Shack’s success is likely due to changing consumer tastes. The company prides itself on its antibiotic-free beef, all-natural hot dogs and “dairy from responsible farmers.” But the company’s social media strategy, which heavily relies on user-generated content, has helped it build and maintain relationships with some of its most loyal fans. A recent report from Engagement Labs found that Shake Shack has the most active user base on Instagram out of all quick service and casual dining restaurants in the US.

On Instagram, Shake Shack often reposts photos that its fans have shared on their own accounts. It also has a penchant for sharing photos of dogs and babies enjoying the brand’s food, which tend to rack up thousands of likes.

“A central part of our marketing success is an active dialogue with our community. Our fans help tell our story,” said Bragg.

Personalization of locations

When opening a new location, whether it’s in London, Instanbul or Seoul, Bragg said that the company tries to ensure that each restaurant has something unique about it to help it stand out.

Bragg used the example of its West Hollywood location, which featured a #HappyWall art installation at the restaurant's construction site that let people spell out different words and images using rainbow colored tiles. And before Shake Shack opened its first Chicago location in 2014, the chain got locals excited about the opening by affixing six interactive life-size sliding puzzles to the restaurant’s construction site, all of which featured artwork by Noah MacMillan. Fans could go on Facebook to vote for their favorite puzzle, and the top two with the most votes became permanent fixtures within the restaurant.

“We invited Chicagoans to come out to our construction site and play,” said Bragg. “You could be a kid again.”

Listening to feedback – and doing something about it

Shake Shack fans are quick to share their love for the brand on social media. But they’re also quick to call the chain out when it does something they don’t like.

In 2013, Shake Shack scrapped its frozen crinkle cut fries and introduced a fresher variety, something that the brand thought its fans would appreciate. Yet following the change, a backlash ensued. The hashtag #BringBackTheCrinkle popped up on Twitter. Someone even created a Twitter account called @CrinkleCrusader. Fry sales began to drop.

Bragg said that despite retooling its kitchens and investing heavily in the new variety, the brand knew it had to reverse course and reintroduce the crinkle cut. So a year later, the brand announced that crinkles would be making a comeback.

“We underestimated the level of nostalgia associated with the crinkle cut,” said Bragg. “Who knew crinkle cut fans were their own community?”

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