During a crisis people turn to many different places for advice, wisdom and comfort. During the global coronavirus pandemic, many are tapping an unlikely source: a processed-meat brand.
Steak-umm, the decades-old maker of thin-sliced frozen beef used in cheesesteak sandwiches, has garnered considerable attention on social media during the coronavirus crisis with a Twitter thread warning people to question their news sources amid a torrent of misinformation about the virus.
The company implored people to "be careful in our media consumption" and reminded the public that it is crucial to "follow a range of credentialed sources for both breaking news and data collection."
The meat purveyor's Twitter thread has generated about 13,000 retweets, over 48,000 likes, and hundreds of comments.
"Worthwhile thread from, um, from Steak-umm," CNN anchor Jake Tapper tweeted. ]
"Steak-umm became Presidential yesterday and got damnit, I missed the whole inauguration ceremony," Actor Jeffrey Wright tweeted. "Umm...read all of this."
Columbia University's department of surgery tweeted: "Never thought we'd say this but here's an important thread from @steak_umm. Anecdotes are not data."
Even Steak-umm poked fun at the notion that a brand -- whose purpose is to persuade folks to buy products, by any means necessary -- -is telling people not to trust everything they read.
"We're a frozen meat brand posting ads inevitably made to misdirect people and generate sales, so this is peak irony," the company said in a self-deprecating tweet.
Advertising has always tried to become part of culture. Decades ago companies used mascots like Tony the Tiger and Charlie the Tuna to bring their brands to life in order to build stronger connections with consumers.
In the digital age, Twitter has opened up a new avenue for brands to communicate with people. Nowadays, carefully crafted Twitter handles have become a mainstay marketing gimmick for most companies.
Steak-umm, whose annual ad budget is a paltry $1 million, knows drumming up free publicity is critical.
"We almost always see a spike in sales volume when we have a Twitter campaign that goes viral," said Joey Piazza, director of marketing at Quaker Maid Meats Inc., Steak-umm's parent company.
Companies such as Wendy's Co., Netflix Inc. and Denny's Corp. have used clever social media accounts to build up legions of followers. Brands often employ funny, snarky, combative or clever personas on Twitter in order to draw attention to themselves.
Fast-food chain Wendy's has garnered plenty of attention by using its Twitter account to poke fun and lambaste its rivals including McDonald's Corp.
In January, a Wendy's follower tweeted a photo of a McDonald's delivery truck and asked the chain what they would call the truck.
"It is a garbage truck," replied Wendy's twitter handle, which features the chain's cute and innocent-looking mascot.
Steak-umm's Twitter handle got a makeover in 2017 when Quaker Maid Meats and Allebach Communications, the company's ad agency in Souderton, Pa., decided the brand needed to reach younger consumers.
"Steak-umm was a dead brand," said Jesse Bender, an account director at Allebach. "We needed to bring new people to the brand and wanted to remind folks that we are still here."
Since then, @Steak_umm has built a cultlike following by doling out a daily dose of advice and humor to consumers with a range of topics that has included the economy and how people treat each other, and by poking fun at consumerism and the ad industry.
Mr. Bender said the brand's 2018 Twitter thread about millennial angst -- which touched on a range of topics from student debt to mental health -- helped put the brand on the map.
"Why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance and attention?" read one Steak-umm tweet. The brand blamed isolation, dead-end jobs and the heavy burden of student-loan debt.
In 2017, less than 15% of Steak-umm's sales were from consumers ages 18 to 35 years; that demographic now accounts for over 20% of the sales, the company said. The company's Twitter account in 2017 had several hundred followers; now it has over 76,000.
Steak-umm said it treads lightly, given that brands can quickly land themselves in hot water if their tweets are seen as political.
"We try to stay away from anything that is too polarizing," said Nathan Allebach, the 28-year-old ad agency executive behind the Steak-umm Twitter handle.
Mr. Allebach said he had been monitoring the coronavirus crisis and wanted to jump in to "add something meaningful."
"People are afraid and believe all the stories in their feeds, so I just wanted to remind people that it is ok to think critically about where you are getting your information."