The newest ironically self-aware brand

I’ll take my pandemic rare with a side of levity, thanks. On 2 April, Steak-umm, supplier of the sliced frozen beef used in the iconic Philly cheesesteak and other fine hoagies, tweeted a long-winded thread on echo chambers and misinformation in times of crisis:

The initial 2 April thread got thousands of likes and retweets, many from political scientists and media figures. But the storied purveyors of frozen meat weren’t finished. True virality came on 6 April, when the following thread got over 60 thousand likes:

The thread goes on to make several cogent points about sorting good data from bad data, sensationalized claims from reliable conclusions. It’s still racking up likes days later, having been shared by celebrities, prominent journalists, and academics across Twitter.

From our brief investigation of Steak-umm’s Twitter feed, the meat company’s beanie-wearing, bearded, bespectacled PR guru, Nathan Allebach, began the page’s intellectual awakening in 2018 with a thread on millennials and viral marketing. His basic theory is that viral marketing works because the pressures of economic malaise have changed an entire generation’s patterns of consumption. Millennials, overburdened by mountains of debt and subjected to economic precarity well into their 30s, won’t take aspirational marketing at face value. You can’t sell something to a millennial with the typical method of surrounding a product with “the good life” — a car, house, stable job and marriage — because these things are out of reach for much of my generation. Instead, brands carefully package irony, nostalgia, and deprecation to speak to us in a language we relate to.

Steak-umm’s coronavirus era intellectualism began with a TikTok post featuring a shot of Allebach reading Because Internet, a book by linguist Gretchen McCulloch that serves as a sort of anthropology of online discourse. McCulloch retweeted the innocuous video, but it seems this event set off a chain reaction of escalating intellectual sincerity for Steak-umm.

Later that day, Allebach posted a video on the Steak-umm TikTok entitled, “why do so many young people want attention and connection from brands?” The video was a rehashing of Steak-umm 2018 thread on post-recession millennial angst being channeled by the marketing industry to sell them packaged irony and nostalgia. In a September 2018 article on Vox, Allebach explained his theory of virality: viral posts “do certain things that people don’t expect to see coming from a brand. There’s that shock: ‘Wow, I can’t believe a brand is saying this thing!’”

On 8 April, Steak-umm tweeted a brief explanation of why its Covid-era online presence has been so successful at finding an audience:

Herein lies the truth at the core of Allebach’s success. Absolutely every person has had, at some point, a job they’ve hated, but, as a condition of employment, many younger professionals have had to pretend this is not the case. In order to achieve material success in today’s environment, millennial employees have to continually externalize their enthusiasm for these jobs on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and, ultimately, I-R-L. Making company culture “fun”, sharing corporate training achievements, and singing karaoke in matching company swag on conference retreats. A corporate marketing Twitter account explaining why our culture’s obsession with entertaining corporate marketing is bad is a contradiction for the ages. By being an American corporation that points out the systemic flaws in modern American corporatism, Steak-umm critiques an unjust economic reality while also participating in it. In an age where ideology is dead and irony reigns supreme, Steak-umm has quickly become the newest exemplar of the ironically self-aware brand.

Wonk Bridge