At ANA, Shake Shack talks about breaking unspoken rules

Vice president of marketing Edwin Bragg reveals how a hot dog stand turned into a global movement.

Shake Shack opened in 2004 as a hot dog stand that promoted an art installation in New York City's Madison Square Park. It didn't even sell burgers. Today, the restaurant chain boasts more than 100 locations worldwide, has gone public on the New York Stock Exchange and possesses the most active fans on social media according to Engagement Labs. How did the company transition from a side project to beloved brand? Vice president of marketing Edwin Bragg told ANA Masters of Marketing attendees that you have to understand its origins to comprehend its path to success.

"We asked ourselves a question: What made all those roadside burger stands so great?" Bragg said. "It was the good and affordable food, but the biggest reason? The community. And that's informed everything Shake Shack is today."

But before Shake Shack could garner fans, it first had to develop a product that was worthy of their fandom. It did this by breaking every burger joint rule. First, Shake Shack isn't fast food; it prefers the term "fine casual dining." Second, its beef was humanely raised and hormone- and antibiotic-free before it was trendy. Hot dogs are all natural with fresh toppings. Its frozen custards are made daily—"have never seen day two"—with no corn syrup.

"Whoever wrote the rule that you can't have a proper glass of wine with your burgers and fries?!" Bragg rhetorically asked.

This led to one of its first culinary collaborations with Napa Valley's Frog's Leap Winery. Shake Shack has since partnered with butcher Pat LaFrieda and the farmers at Niman Ranch, among others, because they're people that the brand admires and they care about their communities. The best part is that it's a symbiotic relationship. "As they grow, we grow," he said.

Shake Shack's leadership understands that their community doesn't come just for their burgers, fries and custards. They also come for the experience, which is why they're building locations with a sense of place and purpose. In Tokyo, they chose a serene park, which serves as an escape from the city's hectic pace. In Austin, you can play bocce ball and sit in an Adirondack chair while enjoying your meal.

not a Fenway frank but.... #doublegram

A photo posted by @samhettrich on

"Whoever wrote the rule that you can't build a community gathering place and serve great food in the most unlikely of places like a baseball stadium or build an amazing piece of architecture near a mall and grab 10 percent of your energy off of the sun?" he asked.

Bragg said the brand's avoidance of these unspoken rules carries over to the way it approaches marketing. To help its community grow with Shake Shack's global offerings, it treats its website as a media site where fans engage in an ongoing dialogue. The "Shack Fam," as Bragg calls them, helps tell the story with more than 300,000 Instagram followers, half a million #shakeshack uses and some even inking the Shake Shack logo on their bodies. Shake Shack employees select every song played at the restaurant and connect with fans on Spotify through curated playlists. There's even a Shake Shack Track & Field fitness club with 12 chapters around the globe who regularly run together with the reward being that Shake Shack buys everyone the first round of beers.

Shake Shack even engages communities before there's a location in town. The brand has turned construction walls of soon-to-be restaurants into conversation pieces. In Los Angeles, the brand teamed up with artist Thomas Dambo to form the #HappyWall, an interactive pixel screen that allowed residents to form messages using moveable tiles. In Chicago, artists Noah MacMillan and Tristan Hummel designed puzzles featuring iconic local landmarks that were later featured in the newly built Shake Shack. In South Korea, the construction wall transformed into a phone charging station where you could meet your friends and unplug while your phone was plugged.

But all of this goodwill collapsed in 2013 when Shake Shack listened to a New York Times food critic and scrapped its crinkle—yet frozen—fries for a tasty, fresh cut fry. New York Magazine called the change "brilliant," but the Twitter backlash was fierce.

"We got thousands and thousands of complaints. We felt it. I mean, we really felt it—an onslaught of passionate Shack fans: #BringBackTheCrinkle, #FriesDisaster, #TeamCrinkleTilIDie!" Bragg said. "I had fans tell me you've ruined Shake Shack, I'm never coming back. They said, 'It's New Coke all over again!'"

Shake Shack leadership had underestimated the emotional connection its fans had to the frozen, crinkle cut fries of their childhood and after a year, reintroduced them to the menu by breaking another rule: issuing a public apology. "Who knew crinkle cut fans were their own community?!" Bragg laughed.

But this stumble didn't stop Shake Shack from trying new menu items. It's since developed a chicken sandwich and collaborated with cronut baker Dominique Ansel for a unique "concrete" flavor whose sales went back to—you guessed it—the community.

"With an intense focus on community and an active dialogue with our guests, it's gotten us to where we are today. What started as an art project has evolved into a fun, lively, fine casual experience," Bragg said. "The result? A passionate following around the world. That's what it's all about, and today, our journey continues." 

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