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.