Nathan Allebach doesn’t consult a formula, research keywords or track online trends before he hits “send” on one of his tweets. That would, in a lot of ways, defeat the point of his abstract craft. Sometimes, he bolts awake in the middle of the night with a genius idea for a truly dumb shitpost. Other times, he lets loose his views on the world while stuck in a mid-day doldrum.
On September 26th, the 27-year-old published a tweet thread underlining his reflections on why young people feel so alone online and in their physical lives — only he did so as Steak-umm, the East Coast frozen steak brand noted for its use in discount Philly cheesesteaks.
The seven tweets got nearly 100,000 combined likes. And all of a sudden, everyone was talking about Steak-umm. Over the course of a year, Allebach has ushered this family-owned frozen steak company into Twitter fame, jumping from 4,600 followers in December to nearly 36,000 today. Plenty of brands — think Wendy’s, Moon Pie and Denny’s — have gone viral by taking on a bizarre or confrontational voice to appeal to the teens. But the Steak-umm Twitter account has elevated this to an art form, sometimes trying to sell you meat, and sometimes just tweeting bullshit that has nothing to do with meat.
This evolution of a brand is happening through a guy who never had aspirations in marketing, preferring to play and record music with a series of small bands. But a bad breakdown with anxiety and depression in his early 20s and some soul-searching led him, in classic millennial fashion, to his father’s ad agency, Allebach Communications, for a glorified unpaid internship. “He knew I’d used social media to promote myself and my art. I just kind of fell into it like that. It didn’t really resonate with me at all, to be honest. I felt like I was just doing it as a job, and I had a lot of privileged guilt about it because it was my dad’s agency,” Allebach says.
It was only when he took over the Steak-umm account last summer that he saw a blank slate worth experimenting with, and a company open to more unconventional marketing tactics. Though Steak-umm had tried Twitter in the past — only to quit after it fell into some unrelentless trolling — in a stroke of luck, a new marketing exec was a good friend of the agency’s. He vouched for Allebach, kick-starting a slow process to fill the account with memes, low-res shitposts, ironic puns and plenty of therapeutic life lessons (each with the now iconic sign-off phrase “steak-umm bless”).
Now a success story, Allebach has spent a lot of late nights alone, staring at the blue-hued light glowing from the ever-present screen of his iPhone, wondering why he does what he does. The media, meanwhile, has been speculating, too. “Steak-umm Is Woke and Now Everything Is Hell,” cracked the AV Club. “Steak-umm Exploits Millennial Angst to Sell Sliced Steak,” wrote Eater. Mashable, meanwhile, wagged its finger at the brand’s rehash of “anti-consumerist advertising.”
The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz, who writes about online subcultures, agrees with the criticism that the millennial-snark humor of certain brands on Twitter is rapidly becoming stale. What Steak-umm has tapped into, however, is a different kind of engagement, she says. “The one I hate most is Denny’s. It’s so cheesy now, but old people think it’s funny and relatable to teens,” she says with a laugh. “We’re in this dark time culturally, and it’s hard to relate to young people unless you go full-on depression mode. But Steak-umm is being existential in its angst. That’s hard for a brand to do in an authentic way, but they’re trying.”
Allebach’s online interactions have so far correlated to growth in sales for Steak-umm, which motivates the company’s owners, and his parents’ agency, to keep him at the steering wheel of the brand’s image. But how in the world could that momentum last given the fickle trends of advertising? Can a brand’s voice ever stay authentic if it gets too popular? And does it even matter if a brand loses integrity? I recently talked to Allebach about what he’s learned in a whirlwind year of taking a brand viral, and what it says about the society who loves the approach.
What’s the strategy behind building a personality around frozen shaved meat, exactly?
The thing that separates the Steak-umm account from any other brand that I’ve seen is the fact that we don’t have many boundaries with how I’m allowed to be on it. Obviously, I’m not gonna curse, and I’m not gonna create politically polarizing statements. But as far as the way the content’s delivered, it’s never in what you’d call a traditional brand voice.
Even an account like MoonPie — and I know the guys who run that account, and they’re hilarious, like seriously mega-geniuses — but even with them, they’ve created a brand where every single post that they do, it comes from a very specific voice, and it has very specific connotations to the product. Whereas what I’m allowed to do, like with that rant that went viral, can have literally nothing to do with the product. We’re just able to jump outside those boundaries. It’s not like a crazy difference. But when you read the things that I tweet, it’s apparent that it’s just a kid or a young adult tweeting from behind a screen. It sometimes sounds very branded, but most times, it kinda sounds like a friend is talking, in some weird way.
It’s a weird balancing act because I do work within an agency structure. So I’m bouncing ideas off of my coworkers, and we’re getting things approved, and we’re still working together on projects. But the end of the day, these tweets are just coming from my brain. I’m just firing them off.
We shit-post memes — the more 4chan-y, Reddit stuff, and that’s fun for an audience that comes to our page for that type of content. And then we have this whole branch of the Steak-umm bless thing, which is more of the philosophical, therapeutic style rants that I’ve done for about a year. I posted one about ghosts ’cause it’s Halloween soon, and about how movies always depict ghosts and evil spirits as haunting the main characters. In actuality, when you get to the end of the movie, you discover in some contextual or conceptual way that it’s actually the main character who created this ghost and is holding onto it.
You ever get into trouble for a post?
There was one around Christmas time. I posted a nativity scene meme. It was one of those that was already popular, so I created one that replaced verbiage with Steak-umm innuendoes. We have a big mix in our audience, of people who think Steak-umm is inherently funny to make fun of, and then older people who have been eating this stuff for 30 years and are more conservatively minded. One of the latter must’ve called. The company pretty much just said, “Back off the Jesus memes.”
Were you surprised by how people reacted starting last fall?
Yeah. I think the Huffington Post was the first place to pick us up, and then it just snowballed. AdWeek picked it up. Our regional Philadelphia newspaper picked it up. Our impression rate on social media kind of doubled on itself each month from there. Once the media started to pick up on what we were doing, the client knew it was successful. Then we were able to get data back in January or February that showed how it was helping sales. We weren’t doing any advertising, including paid ads on Twitter or Facebook or anything. We could literally attribute all of the increase in sales to the tweeting. So it became a real job for me. At the end of the day, it still comes down to return on investment: “What are you doing for me? Are we generating sales? And are we generating more brand awareness?”
How the lines are blurring between brand and consumer and their emotional relationship is a fascinating topic. Do you feel conflicted?
I know I feel morally pulled back and forth on it. There are people who make critiques about it and say, “Oh, well, you’re advertising a product, but you’re trying to be a person, and you’re manipulating people.” My take on that is always, it’s right in your face. We’re Steak-umm. I’m not trying to hide the fact that it’s a brand. At the same time, I do understand the depth of how subliminal advertising can be, and how no one’s immune to it. I think that maintaining an awareness of the tension between running a company and trying to create a transparent, relational persona is super important. As soon as you lose sight of that tension’s existence, then you’ve lost the plot.
The people who are interacting with Steak-umm are mostly somewhere between 14 and probably 23, I’m gonna say. There are definitely millennials, and there’s definitely older people doing it, but those younger generations grew up saturated with social media. That inundation of blurred media signals, and not really knowing how to interpret what they are, is definitely aided by the creation of this whole subculture of online, weird, absurdist humor, like r/SurrealMemes or DankMemes. There are swaths of kids who have seen every type of ad; now they’re willing to push the boundaries past whatever is left, you know?
What does it say about young people being so appreciative of brands taking on this voice and having this role? Are we just kind of interested in the Dadaist aspect of how weird it is to have a “Steak-umm bless” serve as a form of daily therapy?
There’s something cool about someone who clicks with the same absurdist humor, as if they’re in on a joke. But there’s also a portion of the audience that’s confused, and trying to figure out how they feel about the world. The rant that went viral resonates because of the idea of loneliness. And there’s obviously a mental health epidemic going on, and more people seem anxious, depressed or isolated. I can’t even tell you how many people, mostly kids, have DM’d me about how they don’t know what to go to college for, they don’t know what to do as a career…
Oh, hundreds. Literally hundreds of kids asking me what they should do for a career. It’s obvious that whatever’s happened in their lives, they’re not getting that information in their real life, and they’re going to these insane outlets like a brand on Twitter because they think it’s relatable, and they say, “Oh, whomever runs this gets it. I’ll ask them what they think.”
This experiment, this voice, doesn’t work if everyone does it, right? Aren’t we even kind of heading toward that bubble?
The concern is very warranted. There’s a few brands that I’ve noticed recently… I’ll name names. Corn Nuts is pretty new on Twitter, and they followed almost every single person Steak-umm follows — all in one day. I’m not even kidding. It must have been at least 200 or 300 people who tagged Steak-umm asking, “Why did Corn Nuts just follow me, Steak-umm — did you do this?”
So that account is spouting off millennial lingo, and it’s interesting, because I don’t think it’s that funny, personally. Maybe it’s working for them? I don’t know. But they’re a sign of what’s gonna happen, because now there are more case studies, and more brands are gonna be giving more young people the reins. There are going to be growing pains. I know I’m good at what I do, but so much of that has to do with luck and timing, and the type of brand it is. I’m talking to a company next week about their social media activity, and I already know that what they wanna know is whether I can do for their company what I did for Steak-umm.
Maybe we really are nearing the finish line of how far we can push social media in this way because we’ve completely broken down the fourth wall, and I don’t know what comes after that. Wendy’s had a specific approach to being sassy; MoonPie has an approach to being quirky; and obviously, now you have more brands being absurdist or whatever. What happens when you use up all the obvious approaches?
I have a friend who does this work who jokes about how what’s next is that one of these huge brands is gonna drop an f-bomb on the account and own it. Like, we’re gonna see how far we can push this envelope of what a brand is.
Has this job impacted your mental health?
Yes. Definitely. I mentioned before, like in December or January when it was really popping off, I tweeted around 5,000 or 6,000 times in each one of those months. It was literally day-in and day-out. On average, at this point, I tweet about 1,000 times a month, and even that feels like all day, all night. That doesn’t include responding to DMs or our content calendar scheduling, so it’s a lot or work.
But in that period when I was just on Twitter 24/7, I was going through some personal issues with my fianceé at the time, and work was obviously hectic, and I didn’t notice how much it was affecting me until it really did. It was a month or so into that period that I realized that social media was like a drug. Younger people are normally aware of social media addiction in general, and I kept playing it off like it wasn’t going to affect me because I was aware of it. But when you’re dealing with that level of people interacting with you on a daily basis… I wasn’t sleeping. I was staying up ’til like three or four in the morning tweeting, and then waking up at nine or ten and going into work and tweeting all day again. It jacked me up for a bit.
I was seeing a therapist at the time, too. Once I hit the wall, he pretty much told me, “Alright, now is the time to scale it back. Just scale it back.”
I like the pressure of doing what I do, but I think running Steak-umm social was touching on anxieties that already existed in my mind. I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression in the past; I have a panic disorder. Once you’re not on a regular sleep schedule and you’re dealing with onslaughts of comments, good and bad, you [struggle to] compartmentalize all of it. I guess from the content I put out, it’s clear I’m a very temperamentally existential person, and I kind of played up the existentialism in my own anxieties. Seeing a therapist is the best thing you can do as a social media manager (laughs).
Is this a career for you now? And what do you take from this experience with Steak-umm?
Almost everyone I talk to about it says the same thing. “It’s crazy to see the tweets go viral because it’s literally just you.” It really does sound like me in real life. Prior to all this, I was the same person as I am right now: weird, out there, talk too much, kinda cocky, kinda crazy, but enjoying putting ideas out there. I’ve always been a people person; I’ve always been into developing people’s potential and ideas.
So the coolest thing for me is it gave me a chance to see the type of things that I say work, within thousands of online relationships. Having that resonate was very indicative of like, okay, I know I’m not a psychologist, I know I’m not a brand expert, I’m not a PhD. But I have a decent handle on emotional intelligence, and I love talking to people.
And I think in the future, whether that’s through brand consulting, personal consulting or business consulting, I want to get into helping other people find a way to be themselves in a way that makes them successful. Everyone always says, “Just be yourself,” but the truth is, some people suck, you know? I hate that saying, ’cause I know a lot of people who are just being themselves, and they wouldn’t get anywhere in life.
I’d love to find some kind of pathway into helping other people find real, authentic people to run their brands and their companies. You have these seminars and these social media influencers and everybody’s using the words like “authentic,” “community” and “transparency.” People go into meetings saying, “We have to be more transparent.” But they aren’t transparent, so it inherently doesn’t work. You have to be willing to break down the fourth walls that prevent any kind of authenticity from showing up.