The Kogi Effect: Food Trucks & Social Media

March 19, 2011

Case Study by Allie Abodeely

In an article entitled “Why California is Still America’s Future,” Time Magazine identified them as social-network entrepreneurs offering “gourmet dining at recession-proof prices via Twitter.”[i] Bon Appétit magazine awarded them a spot on its 2009 “Hot 10” list “for being true innovators as grassroots guerrilla restaurateurs… [through] the intersection of food and technology.”[ii] Newsweek labeled them “America’s first viral eatery.”[iii] They are talking about the Kogi BBQ truck—the Los Angeles based, family-run gastro-mobile that has received notoriety for its integration of social media with haute cuisine street food.

Kogi BBQ TruckOver the past few years there has been a surge of gourmet food trucks in the United States. These trucks have capitalized on the use of social media and transformed the traditional image from “roach-mobiles” serving fast food at blue-color lots to “mobile-bistros” offering foodie fare on hipster streets. Devout fans monitor tweets and blogs to wait in what can often be hour-long lines. Like most start-ups, Kogi faced the initial challenges of attracting customers. Once social media became an integral part of its business plan, it quickly gained a growing fan-base and international publicity for its Korean-Mexican inspired dishes as well as its digital marketing strategy. Mike Prasad, Kogi’s former brand and new media director, coined this the “Kogi Effect.”[iv]

Since 2006, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have altered the dynamics of marketing communications. These platforms enable virtual conversations between and amongst consumers and companies they love, hate or are curious to learn more about. In today’s environment, it is not enough to simply advertise products and services. Companies must nurture relationships, treating people like active participants rather than faceless targets.[v]

The founders of Kogi BBQ learned early on that the key ingredient for success is engagement. They devised a creative marketing plan using emerging social networking platforms to generate word-of-mouth and word-of-mouse buzz for the company’s unique product. Within its first year, Kogi grossed approximately $2 million and expanded its single-truck operation into a fleet of vehicles. [vi][vii] Within its second year, it added two brick-and-mortar restaurants to its roster.

Not only did social media benefit Kogi as a company, the news surrounding it spread the concept of gourmet food trucks, playing an influential role directly and indirectly in the rapid proliferation of gastro-mobiles throughout the United States. American Express Market Brief reported that in August 2009 one in eight consumers had visited food trucks within a span of six months. In July 2010, that number jumped to one in four.[viii] Moreover, the convergence of food trucks and social media has had a ripple effect on associated technological, political, and socio-economical factors.

Through social media Kogi BBQ was able to cultivate its brand, curate a community, and advance business milestones. It exemplifies the impact digital trends can have on businesses today.

Background

In 2008, Mark Manguera, his wife Caroline Shin-Manguera, and his friend Roy Choi were on the hunt for sustenance after a late night out in Hollywood, but were disappointed by limited options. It was then that the concept for Kogi BBQ was born—a food truck serving high-end street food at affordable prices. The product was a unique marriage of Korean and Mexican fare, an expression of the founders’ heritage—the Korean BBQ taco. The budding entrepreneurs borrowed a friend’s catering truck and embarked on a small business venture.[ix]Kogi BBQ Founders

Taking it to market was not as easy as they had anticipated. Despite parking in pedestrian-heavy neighborhoods Kogi gained little recognition during the first few weeks. On average, it received ten to twenty patrons a night.[x] The fusion of these two ethnic cuisines caused local controversy. “People were laughing at us… throwing gang signs,” explains Choi.[xi] Adding to the challenge was an insufficient budget; meager profits made each night were used to purchase ingredients for the next.[xii] Furthermore, without a brick-and-mortar venue, Kogi needed a way to publicize its ever-changing locations.

Manguera hired Mike Prasad to develop a marketing strategy. Prasad enlisted family, friends, and “foodies” to blog about Kogi. He also established a Twitter account announcing locations and menu specials.[xiii] While parked outside a popular, new nightclub Manguera and Prasad handed out free taco samples. The crowd began coming back for seconds and using smartphones to photograph dishes, share pictures on Facebook, and follow Kogi’s Twitter feed.[xiv] Kogi, in turn, disseminated SMS texts, emails, status updates, and tweets. Through social media and mobile applications it was able to speak directly with thousands of people, broadcasting messages in real-time. Choi tells Newsweek, “That was really the cornerstone of how we grew so quickly.” He explains, “I like to think it’s the food, but I have to give all credit to Twitter.”[xv]

Communications

Social media was an ideal solution for the roving eatery. It became Kogi’s hook—a food truck on a relatively new digital platform. The ability to update followers in real-time gave it flexibility. Kogi could instantly notify people if it was running late or unexpectedly switching locations. It could forewarn eager customers of long lines, short lines or the unthinkable—taco shortages. The constant communication and transparency provided a heightened level of customer service enabling Kogi to garner trust and a devout following. Within its first few months, Kogi was serving 300 to 400 pounds of food to sometimes 800 people a night.[xvi]

Kogi came at a time when Twitter and Facebook were rapidly becoming popular. It made headlines for its use of social media from prominent news outlets across the country and across the pond, from The New York Times to the BBC. All this for what Prasad estimates to have cost less than $200. “Our entire marketing budget consisted of a WordPress template, a domain name, $10 on iStock photo for vector art… and maybe a hundred free tacos.”[xvii] With minimal resources in a struggling economy, Kogi capitalized on social networking tools to inexpensively transform a spontaneous idea into an international success story.[xviii]

While Kogi’s newsworthiness generated press and attention from a vast network of fans, Prasad knew it needed a compelling way to turn customers into “regulars.” In an interview with GuruTube he explains, “You identify the audience, you identify the venues they’re hanging out at, and then you engage them.”[xix]

Social media goes beyond providing tactical solutions. There has been a shift in relationships between companies and consumers. They have evolved into talking with people rather than to them, engaging them in meaningful, mutually beneficial conversations that cultivate and deepen relationships.[xx]

Through social media, Kogi produced an experience making it more than a grab-and-go joint. Prasad recognized the shift in power and instead of fighting it, factored it into Kogi’s business plan. He tells GuruTube that it’s a convergent strategy, a collaborative project with fans. “The actual shape, the color, and the form of that structure moves and changes and reacts based on the interactions and the engagement of your audience.”[xxi] This ongoing conversation empowers fans, making them feel a part of the company. Prasad explains to eMarketing & Commerce, “…in turn, it drives them to tell friends about the company, keeping the Kogi wheels moving.”[xxii]

Kogi created an integrated virtual and real-world interactive, social experience that has been likened to gaming. “People search for it,” explains Alice Shin, Kogi’s creative director and the fingers behind the tweets, status updates, and blogs. She tells CNET, “It’s kind of like a treasure hunt…”[xxiii] Fans and followers sign onto Twitter, Facebook, and Kogi’s blog to locate the truck, exuding a chase-like quality. Once they find it, they stand in line for sometimes hours. At the end of the line awaits their payoff—an edible reward. One local fan, Disc Jockey Akaider, produced a YouTube video documenting this very experience—“Chasing the Dragon (The Kogi BBQ Adventure).”[xxiv]

Kogi also concocted a secret menu that, in theory, is only known amongst insiders, creating an element of exclusivity. Newcomers hear “regulars” ordering a secret dish and, in an attempt to assimilate, strive to learn more about it. Curiosity sets in and so begins their adventure. “In the process you meet a bunch of cool people, you have a little bit of fun,” explains Prasad to GuruTube.[xxv] Ironically, the menu is easy to find—posted on Kogi’s website. Kogi’s specials further emanate the gaming experience with dishes named “PACMAN” described in tech terms as “the everything burger mashup.”[xxvi] Employing such mechanisms stimulates fan dialogue—sharing information, pictures, accolades, and occasional criticisms. The key is the conversations with and amongst its audience on social networks and through its website.

Kogi Kulture

Social networking platforms have functioned as a virtual venue for Kogi; a substitution for a tangible, stationary establishment before opening its current restaurants.[xxvii] The social aspect carries over to the physical realm as people search for the truck, wait in line, and stand together eating. Having a transient operation enabled Kogi to reach a wider audience, seeding various neighborhoods rather than just one. Through these encounters, Prasad created what has been referred to as “Kogi Kulture.”[xxviii] “Being able to leverage each part [of social media] and intelligently direct it towards a vision and actively engage and grow the community is what made Kogi BBQ successful.”[xxix]

Developing a community is vital for any company. So how does an itinerant business, not bound to one neighborhood, drawing from impersonal computer screens and mobile applications, foster a collective bond with a widespread audience? Sense of community goes beyond geographical parameters and technological walls. The late psychologist Seymour Sarason (1974) defined it as a feeling of being part of a larger organization with a perceived similarity and a willingness to uphold interdependence based on group expectations.[xxx] McMillan & Chavis (1986) found that members exhibit more than perceived similarities. They have a shared belief, a sense of belonging, and a commitment to being together.”[xxxi] Gusfield (1975) further identified a relational aspect; a quality of relationships separate from territorial borders.[xxxii]

Social networks are virtual communities analogous to real-world communities. They impart a sense of belonging, interdependence, and quality relationships through shared interests and frequent interactions. Outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube play into this—suggesting friends become “Fans” of Facebook pages, expressing “Like” for commentary and articles, following the tweets of friends and companies, sharing photos and viral videos. Kogi went beyond tapping into social networks. It merged virtual and physical worlds escalating the perception of community through repeated online and in-person interaction around common interests spanning food and technology.

Lord of the Rings pals, Dominic Monaghan and Elijah Woods

Kogi’s community transcends professional lunch crowds, Hollywood scenesters, and LA locals. Its fans could be considered members of Generation C, the “I share, therefore I am” generation.[xxxiii] Gen C is defined by mindset more so than by age.[xxxiv] It comprises digital-savvy consumers tied together by a “need to share their lives via social media,” explains youth marketing strategist Dan Pankraz at a Nielsen Consumer 360 Conference.[xxxv] He calls them “Connected Collective” consumers who thrive on constant connectivity, collaboration, change, co-creation, and curiosity.[xxxvi] They are “tribes” of multi-dimensional “cyborgs” livestreaming opinions and experiences through digital technology. With chameleon-like qualities, they adjust identities to associate with numerous tribes. As co-creators, they are active participants who play integral roles in developing brand story. Effective marketing strategies create conversations about which tribes, or communities, discuss and share. The outcome is an expansive social network making members of Gen C strong influencers and brand ambassadors.

By making brand development a collaborative project Kogi successfully engaged Gen C. It empowered people by encouraging an interactive environment and involving fans in various aspects of the business. “You give them the brand, they take the culture,” notes Prasad in his interview with GuruTube.”[xxxvii] As the demand for Kogi spread throughout southern California, Kogi added trucks to its fleet. It called upon fans, its co-creators, for help naming vehicles, thus conveying a sense of ownership to its followers. Shin tweets:

KOGIHEADQUARTERS… ISGIVINGBIRTHTOANEW BABYTRUCK . . . I’m leaving it to YOU, the peopLes to nominate names…[xxxviii]

The experience Kogi created sparked various forms of fan adoration such as viral videos. “Chasing the Dragon (The Kogi BBQ Adventure),” released on YouTube only two months after Kogi’s launch in November 2008, has to date received over 12,000 hits.[xxxix] Complimented by DJ Akaider’s ingenuity, Manguera invited him to spin one night. Another fan commissioned GreetBeatz to produce a virtual gift—a rap song. The song was published on http://www.greetbeatz.com along with lyrics, fan commentary, a link to Kogi’s website, and a Facebook “social plugin.”[xl]

Kogi’s Flickr photostream is filled with pictures of fans, friends, and family. Ethan Hein, social media consultant, calls it an “aesthetic experience with personality… not simply utility-based.”[xli] Rather than advertising dishes, photographs showcase the Kogi experience; people enjoying themselves. Hein adds, “It’s an artistic display that carries its own value.”

Kogi does more than simply update fans on specials and locations. Shin beseeches them for advice on soothing sore muscles and laments about getting a speeding ticket.[xlii][xliii] Her blogs are relatable. They impart the feeling of a personal relationship thus humanizing the brand. Tweets are written in edgy, down-to-earth vernacular incorporating slang and quoting rappers. One of its most popular dishes, “CREAM,” is an homage to a Wu-Tang Clan song. “Even if you don’t like that type of music, it’s funny to see how their minds work,” explains Hein.[xliv] “It doesn’t get any more personal than food. Your hands are on something I’m going to put in my mouth. I want to know your values.”[xlv]

Kogi garnered such a loyal following that some people drive three hours to satiate their Kogi craving. Caroline Shin-Manguera tells CNN:

It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We make our people wait in line for two hours, we make them wait in the rain, we don’t give them chairs to sit on, we don’t take reservations. We’re late half the time, but we must be doing something right.[xlvi]

Kogi’s founders identified and appealed to behavioral trends. They were not afraid to relinquish some control to fans nor were they intimidated by social media. Instead, they embraced these tools establishing street credibility, literally and figuratively. Kogi maintained relevancy amongst its audience by engaging people in an entertaining way. Prasad tells Mashable blogger Jolie O’dell, “It’s the Kogi Effect… customers love it… you come hang out as the experience. It’s not just the food.”[xlvii]

Beyond the Experience

The food truck social networking trend extends beyond spreading the gastro-mobile seed amongst “foodies” and Gen C. It has triggered an influx of correlating technology. Live food truck mapping sites have popped up in cities across the country. There is an increasing number of smartphone, iPad, and GPS applications, podcasts, blogs, and a nationally broadcast reality television show. The different technologies likewise feed into the proliferation of mobile restaurants by escalating interaction and engagement with people. The more trucks appear on various sites and applications, the more consumers deem them worthy of trying, adding value and credibility.

There have also been political and socio-economical implications. The popularity of food trucks has elicited animosity from brick-and-mortar retailers and restaurants. They argue that trucks disrupt businesses and have thus fought for restrictions. Many food trucks counter-argue that these establishments are hampering fair competition.[xlviii] Through social networking platforms, organizations such as the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association have functioned as lobbyists rallying support for local council members who curb emerging regulations.[xlix] Celebrity commentator Adam Carolla joined the food truck fight blogging about what he calls “stupid laws,” injustices against free enterprise.[l] On the other hand, many establishments and political figures are now using social media to promote the benefits of food trucks. They view them as contributors to local economy that help gentrify dilapidated neighborhoods.[li]

Recommendations

While platforms such as Twitter and Facebook continue to make waves in today’s business world, mobile phones have become what Pankraz characterizes as “social oxygen” acting as  “lifelines to the world.”[lii] According to a July 2010 comScore study, approximately 70% of cell phone owners use devices for more than making calls; 40.7% of those surveyed use them for internet browsing, content download, and applications.[liii] Like social media, mobile technology is transforming communication.[liv] Social media consultant Avi Savar calls mobile technology a “bridge.” “It connects offline to online in a story… [whereas] laptops are 100% online.”[lv] Mobile marketing thus goes beyond providing straightforward product information and event notifications. It complements social media to further blur the line between virtual and real worlds.[lvi] It has the ability to enrich consumer engagement and deliver truly interactive campaigns. It also facilitates companies’ ability to measure response rates and ROI.

Mobile devices are increasingly manufactured with two-dimensional barcode readers such as Quick Response (QR). QR readers allow consumers to launch mobile websites and applications through snapshots, or barcode scanning, as taken by smartphones.[lvii] Bluetooth technology makes proximity marketing possible by transmitting content and exchanging data between fixed and mobile devices over short distances.[lviii] Augmented reality (AR) feeds into the amalgamation of real and virtual worlds creating three-dimensional images viewable through mobile and computer screens. AR markers create holograms that seemingly overlay the immediate world.[lix]

According to a study conducted by Technomic, respondents used social media to connect with restaurants for menus, discounts, and coupons.[lx] Through a convergence of these mobile trends, food trucks could do more than announce specials and locations. They could elevate the gaming experience by placing AR markers on communications to create interactive games. Coca-Cola Europe did this. Consumers used mobile devices to scan packaging and advertisements with built-in markers to activate augmented reality tennis courts. Cell phones functioned as tennis rackets enabling fans to play matches against each other.[lxi] Food trucks could produce similar experiences for people standing in long lines at food truck events, which are common throughout southern California. Better yet, they could use QR codes to process wireless transactions and expedite wait times. With the help of AR browsers and Bluetooth technology, people could locate specific trucks, retrieve customer reviews, and receive instant discounts simply by being within vicinity of these mobile-bistros. Additionally, automatic check-ins would make it easier for fans to notify friends of their whereabouts, subsequently increasing patronage.

While not all mobile devices currently have such capabilities, marketing strategist Rick Mathieson predicts that these mechanisms will become standard features in various devices over the next few years.[lxii] Mobile technology will create an even more powerful way to connect with customers at point of impression and activation, reaching people at the right place and time. It will become increasingly important for companies to incorporate mobile media marketing and engage consumers by fueling utility with entertainment to create an extraordinary experience.

Summary

Kogi became newsworthy for its use of social media and it continues to successfully reach people through these platforms. As of December 2010, Kogi had nearly 79,000 Twitter followers and 16,600 Facebook fans, an increase from approximately 74,000 followers and 14,000 fans in September 2010, respectively. In Los Angeles County there are currently an estimated 4,000 food trucks. Of those, over 115 are considered gourmet, most of which have a presence on social networks.[lxiii] Their use of social media has helped transform an inconsequential food business into a lucrative trend.

The challenge for Kogi and food trucks alike will be standing out amongst the saturation of gastro-mobiles on social networking sites. This begs the questions—with so many food trucks on Twitter and Facebook, will social media become a less effective marketing tool for them? Could gourmet food trucks become a passing fad? Though difficult to predict, the crucial thing for businesses like Kogi is innovation. As technology, communication, and virtual communities evolve, so will consumer behavior and idea generation. It is increasingly important to adapt to these changes. In his blog, digital strategy consultant Brian Solis refers to it as “Digital Darwinism.” “If we are not competing for tomorrow, today, we lose critical opportunities to capture attention now and in the future….”[lxiv] Kogi BBQ has been successful because it embraces digital evolution; it innately understands how to engage its audience through the progression of new media.

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