McDonald's, Chobani and Facebook on Social Food Cues (and Szechuan Sauce)

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Will Post got up on Tuesday morning and made his wife breakfast for their seventh anniversary. How do we know this? He posted step-by-step images of the meal, including a heart-shaped egg nestled in a piece of toast and a green smoothie, on Instagram Stories.

This might just be considered part of his job. The aptly named Post is Facebook's consumer packaged goods industry manager. But as millions of people share photos of home-cooked meals, new flavors and items they spot in grocery stores and restaurant orders across social-media platforms, brands are trying to stay relevant in the always-a-photo-opp world. Packaging gets bolder, including stand-up bags that are easier to photograph. Hashtags are included in ads and on wrappers to suggest sharing. And restaurants work on perfecting lighting and decor so fans' #foodporn shots (there are more than 137.5 million on Instagram alone) look just right.

People buy what they see, know and trust, and 28 percent of people use Facebook or Instagram when grocery shopping, Post said Tuesday at Facebook's first Food for Thought event, held in Chicago. Speakers from the social service, along with McDonald's and Chobani, addressed attendees including media, social and creative agencies and brand managers hungry for more details on how mobile technology and social media are playing increasingly important roles in the food industry.

Take, for example, McDonald's Szechuan Sauce giveaway on Saturday, which left lots of people disappointed when the Golden Arches ran out of the apparently very highly-coveted Szechuan Sauce that "Rick & Morty" fans craved (learn more about that here and here).

One reason the sauce giveaway even happened is that the world's largest restaurant company and its agencies say they're paying more attention to unsolicited feedback on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere. And, of course, the chain promoted the effort on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

"This was an extremely rare scenario where there was just an overwhelming groundswell without any real solicitation from us," Paul Matson, director of customer experience and social engagement at McDonald's, told Ad Age. The demand for the sauce on Saturday was "above and beyond" what the company had anticipated, he said.

"We took a calculated risk, we said it was very limited-time only, and probably far more limited than we would have wanted it to be could we have done it over again," Matson said.

So now there's a new plan to bring the sauce back again, this winter. The company's announcement of that plan drew plenty of positive and negative feedback.

Back to photography, the Golden Arches tries to balance "food porn-esque" images (think perfectly placed fries, burger buns with just the right amount of sesame seeds) with those that look more like what people typically see when they get their food from McDonald's.

And as it aims to present its food in fresh ways, Chobani has begun to mix up the kinds of images posted on social media including on Instagram, which Chief Creative Officer Leland Maschmeyer called the brand's most important social platform.

He often surveys the scene at Cha Cha Matcha, a restaurant near the yogurt company's New York office. "Literally, everyone walks in and the first thing they do before they order, before they sit down, is they whip out their phone," Maschmeyer said.

He's also fascinated that some culinary schools now have a curriculum to teach chefs how to style, light and shoot food.

Chobani, like other brands, tries not to take a one-size-fits-all approach as each social platform's strengths vary. Recipes do "really, really well" on Pinterest for Chobani, but don't have the same type of engagement on Instagram, he said.

Chobani's images now go well beyond shots with lots of rustic wood tables and ingredients around the yogurt cups. "While beautiful, if you type in 'food photography' on Pinterest, that's all you would see," Maschmeyer said.

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