By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN
THE popularity of the A&W Restaurants chain in the United States peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, when the number of locations — many with carhop service — swelled to 2,400, so it is no wonder that the brand stirs nostalgia in the baby boomer generation. But now A&W, which has about 700 restaurants, wants to make an impression on those boomers’ children, and the brand is increasingly turning to social media to do so.
To promote a new menu item with an unwieldy name, the Hand-Breaded Chicken Tender Texas Toast Sandwich, the brand is introducing a hashtag that is itself unwieldy: #supertastylargeandinchargetexastoasttwohandwichmadewithdeliciousonehundredpercentwhitemeathandbreadedchickentendersandyourchoiceofclassicorspicypapasauceeitherwayyoucan’tgowrongwowthatsoundsgoodyouneedtotryoneitsonlyavailableforalimitedtimeImgoingtohavetogogetonemyselfareyoustillreadingthisseeyouatAandW.
Along with deliberately defying the basic hashtag tenet of being simple to remember, at 304 characters it far exceeds the 140-character limit of Twitter, although other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest allow longer hashtags.
A television commercial introduced on Monday opens with a voice-over asking: “How would you describe the Hand-Breaded Chicken Tender Texas Toast Sandwich?” To the sound of rapid clicking of keyboard keys, the speaker breathlessly rattles off about half of the hashtag, before slowing down and saying, “In other words, it’s a mouthful.” An end card directs viewers to the A&W website to see the full hashtag.
The brand is calling it the world’s longest hashtag, an assertion that may be difficult to prove, but it says it will seek recognition from Guinness World Records. (A search of the Guinness website yields five records related to Twitter and six related to Facebook, but none related to hashtags.)
The social media and advertising campaign is by Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions, the agency of record for the chain. Both are based in Lexington, Ky. A&W, which declined to reveal expenditures for the campaign, spent only $876,000 on advertising in 2013, according to the Kantar Media unit of WPP. (Advertising expenditures for A&W root beer sold in stores, which is licensed in the United States by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, is not reflected in the figure.)
A&W ranks 168th among all American restaurant chains, based on estimated yearly revenues of $184.4 million, according to Technomic, a restaurant consulting and market research firm.
“They’re a brand that’s trying to find their way,” said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic. “It’s a nostalgia and legacy brand that is familiar to a number of Americans, but the problem with A&W is that it was a drive-in and it isn’t really a drive-in today.”
Among A&W’s 700 units in the United States, 50 are drive-ins, 200 are stand-alone dine-in restaurants, and the remainder are co-branded locations where it shares a roof with other fast-food establishments, primarily KFC and Long John Silver’s.
What A&W needs to do, Mr. Tristano said, is “rebuild their brand perception with millennials.”
Tim Jones, a creative director at Cornett, said that to reach younger consumers, the 95-year-old brand aims to strike a tone of “hip nostalgia” that characterizes older brands like Levi’s and Ray-Ban.
Rooty the Great Root Bear, an orange-sweater-wearing A&W mascot introduced in 1974, was returned to prominence in 2012 after having been, in the words of the brand, hibernating for about a decade. Today, A&W’s Twitter account, which has 7,200 followers, is written from the bear’s perspective.
“On Twitter, if you’re the voice of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall bear with no pants, you can be a little bit more silly and more playful,” said Liz Bazner, associate manager of digital communications at A&W Restaurants. “The idea is also that Rooty doesn’t quite understand technology or Twitter, so he’d use a hashtag that would be too long for Twitter.”
In 2013, A&W created a profile for the mascot on LinkedIn, and when other users would add Rooty to their professional network, the bear would write far-fetched recommendations on their behalf.
“Using only a large-ish glass of water, he once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants,” Rooty wrote on behalf of one LinkedIn user. About another, he offered, “He can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with almost zero accuracy.”
LinkedIn removed Rooty’s profile a couple of weeks after it went up, citing a policy of permitting only actual people on the site. In response, the brand posted a video in mock indignation to YouTube.
An A&W smartphone app encourages users to draw a mug of root beer for the bear, who, when tapped on his stomach, emits a hearty belch. The app, Burping Rooty, also allows users to direct the bear to recite the alphabet in belch form.
“If you’d like to grab some attention for your business on social media,” Forbes.com reported in 2013, “A&W Restaurants is currently providing a training manual on a fun-filled way to do it.”