A recent such tweet, for example, reads: “during this pandemic it’s vital to stay wary of charlatans peddling ‘miracle cures’ that are ‘all natural,’ such as colloidal silver or herbal remedies. many people are afraid and extra susceptible to scams. please counter falsities if you see them with both data and compassion.”
It prompted Columbia University research virologist Angela Rasmussen to tweet, “Steak-umm offering the sensible, rational defense of truth, repudiation of opportunism, and call to humanity that we all need right now.”
friendly reminder in times of uncertainty and misinformation: anecdotes are not data. (good) data is carefully measured and collected information based on a range of subject-dependent factors, including, but not limited to, controlled variables, meta-analysis, and randomization— Steak-umm (@steak_umm) April 7, 2020
So, as Morgan State University journalism professor Jason Johnson tweeted, “Why is Steak-Umm dropping truth bombs?”
The answer lies with Allebach Communications, the food and beverage marketing firm based in Souderton, Pa., that took over the Steak-umm account about five years ago. The sliced-beef company, founded in 1975, wanted to reach a younger audience.
The feed’s main writer is social media manager Nathan Allebach, the 28-year-old son of the firm’s owners. “The voice is based on a combination of brand features,” he said via email, “like it being a family-owned frozen meat company built by the working class, then me trying to personify it based on those features, my own thoughts, and an adaptable human-esque style that feels like someone you know.”
The company’s Twitter presence first made waves — at least with national media — in 2018, when a viral thread began: “why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention? I’ll tell you why. they’re isolated from real communities, working service jobs they hate while barely making ends meat, and are living w/ unchecked personal/mental health problems.”
Since then, the brand’s feed has continued to find a balance among depressing truths, funny puns and absurdist commentary. Allebach keeps “multiple running notepads of personal thoughts throughout the day that come from podcasts, articles, content creators, or just the ether, then I spend time following cultural trends and conversations on Twitter itself to see how I could insert any semblance of helpful dialogue into the mix based on those thoughts.”
Donna Hoffman, a marketing professor at George Washington University, said one reason other brands haven’t quite been able to copy him is “because it’s a guy with his own voice. And he’s very clever, really smart and really well read.”
Many brands have attempted a conversational, human(ish) voice on Twitter, with varying results. Wendy’s has taken up the role of an insult comic, endlessly roasting its fast-food competitors. Taco Bell sends out a mixture of offbeat and sassy messages. Planters opts for the absurdist. Steak-umm, on the other hand, goes for empathy and, Hoffman noted, “authenticity.”
“Twitter is a conversation, and if you’re not in the conversation and just constantly being negative, people tend to fall away from that. They might find some of the commentary funny for a little while, but it’s very polarizing in the end,” said account director Jesse Bender. “We want to be part of the conversation.”
Some conversations, though, are more difficult than others. History has taught us time and time again that brands’ tweets during crises often lead to nothing but problems. During the Arab Spring, Kenneth Cole famously tweeted (and deleted): “Millions are in an uproar in Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”
Steak-umm decided to take its shot during the coronavirus pandemic anyway, maintaining its goal to be an honest part of the conversation while nixing some of the goofier content. “We needed to stop with the memes. We needed to stop with the poking fun, and we needed to listen,” Bender said. What they heard was a tidal wave of misinformation sweeping social media, so Allebach did what he always does and wrote “long, repetitive rants that I try to simplify and make sense of.”
Judging from the praise heaped upon these tweets, the plan seems successful.
“Historians will long remember that America’s moral compass in this time of trial was a frozen meat company,” declared Denver television anchor Kyle Clark. “Is the social media manager of a frozen meat company eligible for a MacArthur Genius Grant?” asked Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark tweeted that he’s so impressed with the company’s posts that he’ll try out its beef.
Meanwhile, Steak-umm continues to use one of its most consistently successful tricks: employing pure transparency. The brand recently tweeted, “note: all companies have a bottom line, so anything we publish is a form of propaganda to encourage positive association and memory with our brand, despite whatever our intentions. remember to consume advertising and PR with skepticism, even if the message is ‘helpful.’ ”
While the feed had racked up 135,000 followers as of this writing, Hoffman wonders whether its appeal might eventually dim. “We’re looking for that next new thing to give us that next dopamine rush,” Hoffman said. “But eventually everyone who would have potentially been interested in seeing the feed will have seen it.”
For now, at least, it burns brightly. Allebach chalks that up to the brand giving him “the freedom to dive deeper into meta commentary and self-awareness, making it feel conversational and existential, which is what Twitter is all about.”