The Return of Spicy Chicken Nuggets

A rapper cajoles Wendy’s into bringing back a menu item, a reminder of social media’s power to create instant opportunities—and challenges—for leaders.

It seemed like an innocent enough tweet. Over the weekend, the American performer known as Chance the Rapper expressed a desire to have a good day, success, and for the fast-food chain Wendy’s to bring back its spicy chicken nuggets.

But the quick-thinking leaders at Wendy’s saw Chance’s words as an opportunity to show off its agility—and make some customers happy. The firm told its own fans, and everyone else, that if Chance’s post got 2 million likes it would indeed bring back the nuggets. By Monday, the post had reached the milestone, and Wendy’s announced that it would hold up its end of the bargain.

What began as a one-off comment turned into a highly anticipated product relaunch, and may be remembered as one of the more colorful ways that social listening can impact the bottom line. “The power is indisputable,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director for Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs practice. “Social media channels are changing the dynamic of how companies can market and engage with their customers.”

Indeed, few would dispute the ways social media has become so pivotal to a company’s success. Word spreads like wildfire online, which means social chatter can either boost a consumer-facing brand or hurt its reputation, experts say. Leaders, then, need to be more agile and flexible when it comes to seizing on viral social media moments. “Wendy’s is an example of a brand that really engages with social listening,” Marshall says. “Not all brands are as nimble.”

Since resurrecting the nugget, Wendy’s has yet to announce when—or for how long—the popular item will reappear on its menu. That isn’t surprising, of course. Social media fires can spark in a matter of seconds and die out just the same. But preparing a product launch or relaunch takes time and money, and involves getting a group of stakeholders, including franchise owners and suppliers, on board.

Franchise-driven businesses, by nature, require CEOs to manage conversations and relationships with their supply chain and franchisees on a regular basis, says Tierney Remick, vice chair of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice. “It’s a natural part of their job to keep all constituencies aligned around these types of opportunities,” she says—whether they come from headquarters or, increasingly, local markets.

Even still, Wendy’s will have to work fast to come up with a plan that it can actually produce, especially in a hypercompetitive industry like fast food. A saturated market and swelling consumer base means restaurants are fighting hard to grow sales and attract loyal patrons. (More than one-third of Americans eat fast food in a given day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Part of that speed and the success of the nuggets’ return will be tied to the firm’s own supply chain. Wendy’s suppliers will need to be agile, nimble, and quick in order to meet impromptu product demand—otherwise, their partnership with Wendy’s could suffer down the line, says Tyler Howells, managing associate with Korn Ferry’s Agribusiness practice in North America. “You just need to be prepared for this,” he says.

And, in the end, that has huge implications for the top brass. “It’s pivotal that suppliers have someone in leadership who understands the downstream effect and are close to their consumers,” Howells says.