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.

8 comments about "Social Brands In The City Of Angels ".
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  1. Gary Klein from GKlein&associates, September 8, 2009 at 1:17 p.m.

    I loved the real life, every day feel to today's piece. I also smiled at you and your wife's navigation of the Social divide and life in general.

  2. Holly Brown from MRM Worldwide, September 8, 2009 at 1:29 p.m.

    Love the secret passwords at Sprinkles. As a previous Ben and Jerry's franchisee, I would have loved to use Twitter in this way. A great (no cost) traffic driver!

  3. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, September 8, 2009 at 1:35 p.m.

    Ahh but for the same price as the Millenium you could of stayed at the AMAZING Standard with all the hipsters and the roof top pool! So social media let you down! lol

  4. Tyler Lecompte from, September 8, 2009 at 1:54 p.m.

    This was one of the funnest reads that I have enjoyed in some time David. I could literally picture your Social Media-infused vacation in detail, almost feeling like I was in line to witness your wife's triumphant ice cream score. Thanks for sharing your trip & time with us David. Saving this for my next LA jaunt.

  5. David Berkowitz from MRY, September 8, 2009 at 2:42 p.m.

    Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts here. To me all of this social media stuff hits home when I experience it as a consumer. There were a couple things I didn't get to mention lest the column take too many detours:
    1) There were a lot of brands that weren't social in this context, like Pollo Loco, which was was one of my favorite spots. We kept driving by and ultimately went in. I did get some info on Yelp and background on Wikipedia, so social media crept in there too, but I was really going to stop in no matter what.
    2) Sharing some updates on Facebook and Twitter while out there led others to share some suggestions with me. I went to one such spot, Susie Cakes in Brentwood, but they were closed the Sunday I went. Another recommended Tito's Tacos not far from the airpotr.
    3) Some other brands were social in different contexts. One fun instance: the Brooklyn Cyclones. I wore my Cylcones hat around (an odd example - ) and while I was at the beach in Malibu someone from the Brooklyn 'hood of Park Slope made a comment, and we wound up chatting for a bit. No social media per se here (until I shared the pic on Twitter) but a social experience nonetheless, akin to the U-T example.

  6. Jonathan Hall from American Pop, September 8, 2009 at 5:14 p.m.

    The Kogi BBQ truck is quite the phenom. Twitter offers the translation from offline to online and vice versa.

  7. John Bruce, September 8, 2009 at 5:20 p.m.

    Glad to have you visit the "left coast"! It's just great how social media has changed the way people advertise. Even though you would have still gone to Sprinkles, maybe many of the folks who follow them on Twitter may not have gone to the store that day. But they could whisper "touchdown" and get their free cupcake...and probably order a dozen more for their home or office. I'm curious to find out how successful the promotion was for Sprinkles.

    By the way, In-N-Out Burger is my favorite burger joint...and I follow them on Twitter as well.

  8. Bruce Christensen from PartyWeDo, September 10, 2009 at 10:28 a.m.

    Great vacation run-down.. It is amazing that the web is influencing so much of our brand awareness.
    Just the mention of In-N-Out makes this transplanted (Portland, OR.) Californian's mouth water!

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