Social Brands In The City Of Angels

Originally published in MediaPost

Chichen itza
A yummy Yucatanian spread at Chichen Itza in South LA, which we found in Zagat

Social Brands In The City Of Angels

I
swore this would be a vacation. It was so weird taking a cab to JFK and not
asking for a receipt, but I was ready to embrace it. Still, a long Labor Day
weekend in Los Angeles for a friend's wedding wound up being shaped continually
by social media experiences with brands big and small. Here are some standouts.

Virgin America: There are two reasons I
flew Virgin for the first time to get to LA. One was that the groom noted there
were good deals on flights from New York. Yet uncharacteristically of me, when
I checked that the fare was reasonable, I didn't look elsewhere — I
booked it right away. The buzz surrounding the brand has been a big
influence, especially with the countless exposures I've had through social
media such as the repeated
mentions on Rohit Bhargava's blog
. I don't quite get all the hype, but I'd
fly it again if the deal warrants it.

Kogi: We landed at LAX at 8 p.m., got our
rental car at 8:30, and by 9 had arrived at where one of the Kogi trucks
cooking fresh Korean barbecue was scheduled to arrive, according to their
Twitter status update
. We were among the first on line, and we still waited
an hour and a quarter for the grub, even walking with the line around the block
when the truck had to change parking spots. Its fans on Twitter, and it diehard
fan base of California hipsters, know what they're talking about. We got far
more food than we needed and devoured it all on the trunk of our rented Ford
Mustang in a liquor store parking lot. It was the best meal of our trip.

Coolhaus: When arriving at the
hotel, the groom heard our predilection for Twitter-promoted food and told us
to check out Coolhaus
ice cream sandwiches
, which had some architectural inspiration. It turns
out a furniture store was sponsoring free Coolhaus giveaways, again as
per Twitter
, and we managed to make it over.

Sprinkles Cupcakes: There was little doubt
that having frequented the Sprinkles in Dallas, I had to visit the birthplace
of these baked goods in Beverly Hills. The original's just as good, with slight
menu variations such as offering Coca-Cola with cane sugar, instead of Dr
Pepper in Texas.

This West Coast visit came with a social twist though. Sprinkles
routinely posts Facebook and Twitter status updates with secret passwords that
a number of customers can whisper in the stores to get free treats. On
Saturday, for instance, Sprinkles
tweeted
, "It's football season! The first 50 people to whisper
'touchdown' at each #Sprinkles
today receive a free football vanilla #cupcake!"
When we got to the front of the line, my wife couldn't keep herself to a
whisper and shouted "Touchdown!" as if Tony Romo of her home-team
Cowboys had just completed a pass that sent them to the Super Bowl.

Granted, we would have gone to Sprinkles anyway, so they didn't
gain a new customer. That kind of math would be shortsighted, though. Sprinkles
has turned me into such a fan that they trained me to check Twitter before
going into a store, deepening their number of touch-points with me and
strengthening the consumer-brand relationship. Furthermore, they created a much
more buzzworthy experience — instead of just saying I bought cupcakes, I can
say my wife shouted for them, and they gave her one for free. Through social
media, even more people get involved — the "touchdown" comment has
170 comments and 70 "likes." The total cost of the promotion? $162.50
in free cupcakes that day at retail prices, minus their margins, plus a few
minutes of someone's time, which may have just been shifted from doing something
else — like writing a press release.

Millennium Biltmore: This was the official
hotel for wedding guests close to the event venue. But as a rule my wife won't
stay somewhere unless it has at least a pretty good TripAdvisor rating, so that
means I check TripAdvisor before we go anywhere. Other consumers' reviews, and
the nature of them (do they write like seasoned travelers or first-timers?),
will make or break our decision. To Millennium's credit, they regularly respond
to any negative reviews.

Chichen Itza and Water Grill:
Zagat reviews influenced my wife's interest in both of these restaurants, the
former a Yucatanian quick-service restaurant in South LA and the latter an
upscale seafood restaurant by our hotel in New Downtown. The heart of Zagat Survey's
business is curating user-generated content; it had a business model around
social media before the phrase "social media" was coined.

There were many other brands we engaged with on the trip that were
not social media-related. The cult around In-N-Out Burger led to my wife's
first and my second visit there. And speaking of religion, we had to check out
the Church of Scientology when we drove by the headquarters; we only caught the
first five minutes of their four-hour video in their screening room (catch it
all on the DVD for $20). Then there's one of the world's largest unofficial
religions, the worshippers at the Texas Longhorn altar, who without fail
routinely comment on my beloved burnt orange University of Texas shirt that I
wear wherever I go. All of these are social brands, even if I can't trace my
connection with them to a Twitter update or blog post. Brands that understand
the role they play in social contexts, though, can more effectively use social
media to spread the word, amplify the buzz, and bring in more customers in the
process.

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