A frank lesson in influencer strategy

July 2, 2024

A frank lesson in influencer strategy

July 2, 2024

GG’s Amanda de Castro breaks down the recent Joey Chestnut controversy and outlines how companies can be smart about influencer marketing strategy.

Fans of the time-honored July 4th Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest were left disappointed and surprised last month when it was announced that the competition would move forward without its big star, Joey Chestnut. The 16-time champion was banned from participating because he signed a separate endorsement deal with Impossible Foods, which develops plant-based meat substitutes and recently launched a new marketing campaign specifically targeting meat-eaters.

Chestnut and Nathan’s were in the midst of negotiating Chestnut’s latest contract when news came out about his deal with Impossible Foods. Allegedly, Chestnut refused to make an exception that would have him represent all Impossible products except for hot dogs, and his talks with Nathan’s reached an impasse.

The star influencer of the hot dog world

The announcement was a PR blow to Nathan’s. Weeks before the most important event of the year, it upset fans by breaking up with the competition’s biggest influencer. The fallout from the news can teach us some PR lessons in how to optimize influencer strategy to strengthen the brand and save face in times of crisis:

When possible, present a unified front

Influencer marketing helps brands because it brings third-party validation and new audiences into their orbit. This can also pose a challenge when things go south, since influencers can wield their platform against the brand to save face.

Major League Eating (MLE), which oversees the Nathan’s contest, offered a mixture of statements, quoted commentary, and snippets of emails to the press, and Chestnut fought back in his public response, claiming he found out he was banned from the media and not from the organizers themselves. This messy situation encouraged the public to speculate what may have really happened to the partnership and likely earned Chestnut sympathy from fans as he implied the brand was trying to take advantage of him by imposing unfair terms.

To avoid the rumor mill and shorten the story’s shelf life, MLE and Nathan’s should have attempted to work with Chestnut on a public announcement that answered key questions and avoided pointing fingers. Treading more carefully with the brand’s top influencer could have saved Nathan’s from the brunt of the backlash.

Speak directly to your audiences when it matters

Though its brand was front and center in the press coverage about the controversy, Nathan’s itself was largely silent. The announcement itself and subsequent media statements came from MLE and its leaders, George and Richard Shea.

Sometimes, ignoring a crisis makes it go away. But once the issue garners national attention, it’s important to address it. Though Nathan’s may have worked with MLE on its responses, and though it may have minimal control over the event that bears its name, its decision to keep quiet allowed others to dominate the narrative. Good PR strategy recognizes when it’s time for brands to communicate with their audiences without filtering the message through a third party.

Think long term with influencer marketing strategy

Influencer marketing teams must make decisions based on the brand’s big-picture goals. Sometimes, this means making sacrifices in the short term.

The July 4th contest is the biggest event of the year for Nathan’s. Chestnut is an important ambassador for the company; he’s the first name people think of when they think about eating contests. He commands a large audience, and his presence creates a positive association with Nathan’s. Even if another (vegan) company gets some visibility in the process, the PR strategy question is: do the positives outweigh the negatives?

Of course, it’s up to Nathan’s to prioritize exclusivity as the deciding factor in their partnership. Considering the high profile of the event, however, allowing Chestnut to participate—despite any other endorsement deals he may have—would likely have been more effective for the brand over the long term.

As silly as a disagreement about hot dogs might seem, there are some real lessons to be learned here. Being strategic with influencer strategy can make or break a brand during key moments.