Social media has changed every industry and the supply chain hasn’t escaped unscathed. In fact, social media has been behind some of the biggest, and most well-publicized, disruptions in the supply chain over recent years. It’s a question of supply and demand. In the past, forecasters were able to rely on historical data to approximate how much of a certain product would be needed. Now, viral videos, tweets, and even memes can throw off those calculations severely by influencing customer expectations.
This phenomenon is particularly apparent for food and beverage supply chains that deal with hundreds of thousands of sales each week of products with short shelf lives. Huge upticks in sales on a particular product can disrupt production and test the agility of procurement and logistics teams to keep up. Below are three examples of times social media upended the food & beverage supply chain.
Starbucks Gets An Unexpected Endorsement
Early in 2019, Starbucks’ Cloud Macchiato got an endorsement on Twitter by Ariana Grande, a wildly popular singer, songwriter and actress. Grande tweeted about how much she loved the new iced drink and her fans, self-proclaimed Arianators, rushed to their local Starbucks locations to purchase their own.
Senior Vice President and Chief Procurement Officer at Starbucks, Kelly Bengston, recalled how the company hadn’t counted on the huge popularity of the drink brought about by Grande’s social media followers and fans. Speaking in regards to the increase in demand, Benston said, “It creates an amazing opportunity to test how agile your teams are… How do you get to business? How can you move it from store to store?”
The challenge for Starbucks lay in judging how much product was needed to satisfy fans while the Tweet was trending on social media while not overbuying to the point where there was wasted product. It’s a delicate balancing act that forecasting cannot fully take into account.
Rick & Morty Joke Presents McDonald’s With an Opportunity
Disney’s Mulan was released more than 20 years ago. To promote the release of the movie, which takes place in Han dynasty China, McDonald’s added Szechuan Sauce as a condiment option for their Chicken McNuggets. The sauce was a limited release and had been largely forgotten until 2017 when social media would resurrect it and disrupt McDonald’s supply chain.
After an episode of Adult Swim’s popular show Rick and Morty referenced the long-forgotten dipping sauce, the joke was turned into a meme that went viral across the internet. To capitalize on the social media presence, McDonald’s decided to bring the sauce back for a one-day promotion in limited quantities at certain locations. Fans purportedly drove across state lines and even from Canada to get their own Szechuan sauce experience.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the promotion vastly outweighed the amount of Szechuan sauce packets distributed to McDonald’s locations and thousands of fans missed out on the opportunity to participate in the “pop-culture phenomenon.” Furious fans took once again to social media to expound upon their disappointment and urge McDonald’s to bring back the sauce in a larger release.
Rising to the challenge, McDonald’s announced that it would ship some 20 million Szechuan sauce packets to stores in late February 2018. This curbed the social media debacle and ended with McDonald’s being able to satisfy their customers and earn back loyalty. Even though the Szechuan sauce joke in Rick and Morty was just a throw-away joke, it had real-world supply chain implications when it hit social media.
Twitter Feud Sparks a Run on Chicken Sandwiches
More recently, a Twitter feud between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A sparked a social media controversy about which retailer sold the better chicken sandwich. The controversy began in August 2019 when Popeyes introduced a new chicken sandwich item onto its menu. The sandwich was an instant success, even being ranked by Business Insider as the No. 1 fried-chicken sandwich. This prompted Chick-fil-A to tweet “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the <3 for the original.” Popeyes quote-tweeted it directly, adding “…y’all good?” and igniting a flurry of tweets by chicken sandwich fans nationwide.
Due to the huge social media attention it was receiving, Popeyes sold out of its new menu item in just two weeks after it was introduced. Supplying enough buns for all the chicken sandwiches the company was selling was a main issue. In a creative supply chain move, Popeyes launched a campaign called “Bring Your Own Bun” so that more sandwiches could be sold. The program encouraged guests to order the three-piece chicken tenders off the menu then construct the sandwich themselves.
Popeyes has announced that the sandwich would be returning to its 150 Popeyes locations in early November this year. In order to keep up with the production of the hugely popularized sandwich, Popeyes is adding an additional 400 employees. Up to two people per store will be solely designated to making the sought-after menu item going forward.
Can Supply Chains Stay Ahead of Social Media Trends?
Social media’s influence across the supply chain is a new frontier for most companies. It can be a challenge to react to unexpected endorsements (or negative comments) in a productive way. These stories about Starbucks, McDonalds and Popeyes can act as examples of how to handle demand shifts for other food and beverage supply chain companies. By seizing the opportunity to promote their brands, these companies were able to restructure their supply chains by increasing production, altering logistics, communicating with customers, and even adding staff. The key is to stay informed on social media trends and not be afraid to be flexible in the face of social media’s influence on customers.