How Non-Traditional Marketing Tactics Put Smashburger at the Top of Its Game
How Non-Traditional Marketing Tactics Put Smashburger at the Top of Its Game

There are a lot of choices when it comes to burgers. But Smashburger’s unique marketing efforts have helped the young brand gain nationwide-notoriety.

It might not seem like the world needs another burger joint. The big three—McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—currently fill strip malls and highways, with nearly 30,000 locations in the U.S. Meanwhile, smaller players like Jack in the Box, Hardee’s and Five Guys Burgers & Fries add another 13,000. 

But yet, despite all of that supply, there’s still hungry demand. After all, Americans consume nearly 13 million burgers a year—that’s 43 for every man, woman and child. At this point, the cheeseburger is nothing short of an American institution.

Despite the prevalence of greasy spoons and fast-food joints, people were craving something different—they were starved for something better. That’s why, in 2007, Tom Ryan began building a burger chain that was fast, affordable and even worth talking about (and returning to again, and again and again). His vision was to connect with America’s passion for its favorite food on a local level and in a space where “Smashed Fresh, Served Delicious” means dedication to crafting the best-tasting burger around. His burgers would always be made-to-order, never frozen and seared to perfection on the grill.

Ryan’s idea is working—today, Smashburger has more than 350 locations throughout the country. And they’re still growing at an unprecedented rate.

But beyond their better-burgers, much of Smashburger’s success can be attributed to an unconventional marketing philosophy that relies heavily on social media and old-fashioned word of mouth.

“From the beginning, we wanted Smashburger to be a defining brand for the next generation, and the marketing mix for how you engage them is different than how you engaged the last generation. Early on, we realized that in order to communicate our differentiation, we needed to talk to the next-generation customer, and they were looking at and listening to very different sources,” Ryan said in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News. “I believe that PR is the new marketing. There’s an authenticity and integrity that’s not just advertising, but that comes from having a lot of touch points and an event base with your consumers. The PR field in general is a bigger piece of the puzzle as we go from the last generation to the new generation.”

Ryan knew that the people giving a voice to the next generation of customers were the people he wanted to make sure got Smashburger’s story right. In order to get that message out, the brand turned to the mommy bloggers, food bloggers and beer bloggers of the blogosphere. The brand found these bloggers by name, inviting them to guided tours of the concept. In turn, they were able to position Smashburger the right way to their reader base. In doing so, Ryan was able to create third-party buzz about the brand—it wasn’t his own people talking about how great they are.

“There’s only so much you can say in a 30-second ad. The social elements we have let us talk about deep content, like what makes a Classic Smash a Classic Smash. It’s a one-two-three punch, with social media and PR up front setting up that content, and then we come in behind that with main awareness-building techniques—you can’t build awareness without people knowing what to expect,” Ryan said to Nation’s Restaurant News. “The new market is a much more fragmented market than just TV and radio advertising. Modern brands need to recognize that PR, touch points, buzz and social-media marketing aren’t a choice; they’re a given. The opinion-leader consumer, the early-adopter consumer and the next-generation consumer all tend to look to those things first.