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Social media cuts both ways for Genghis Grill


Genghis Grill showcases healthy food in its annual Health Kwest contest.

Getting people to post, tweet and Instagram about your brand is the goal for many franchises. But a Genghis Grill contest shows what happens when the social-media-savvy public turns negative.

It seems brilliant on paper, an annual weight-loss contest sponsored by Genghis Grill called Health Kwest. Contestants vie to lose the most weight, eating Genghis Grill for free one meal a day for 60 days, and brag about their progress via required social media posts. They earn points, 50 percent each for weight loss and posting, toward a $10,000 grand prize.

But a few disgruntled contestants are now blasting away at the franchisor via—you guessed it—social media, and getting ready to ramp up their public gripes when applications open for the next contest January 1.

The blog posts are hyperbolic. “Health Kwest: A Major Inexcusable Embarrassment for Genghis Grill,” reads one by Pearson Hurst, a Virginia man who said he was at first excited to be chosen for the contest. 

He then became concerned over what he called sloppy handling of activities such as weigh-ins. That turned to alarm when he learned how the winner allegedly lost a prize-winning 65+ pounds, by “taking stimulants (at one point overdosing), diuretics, intentionally dehydrating and starving himself, and taking other extremely risky, unhealthy steps in order to win,” Hurst claims. 

“They are completely refusing to take the health and well-being of their contestants into account, despite the fact that this contest is billed as a ‘Health’ Kwest,” Hurst continues, referring to Genghis Grill.

Genghis Grill’s Ron Parikh, chief marketing officer, is the man behind the contest, which has run for four years straight. “After every annual contest, several contestants tell us that Health Kwest has literally changed their lives by showing them how to adopt a more active lifestyle and make healthy choices,” he said via email. 

The campaign “has evolved significantly since we first introduced it in 2011,” he continued. “Each year we solicit feedback from the contestants to learn how we can improve the contest.” Based on this year’s feedback, he said, “we will be updating the rules to reflect healthy weight loss practices and the new FCC guidelines. It’s important to emphasize that while a few of this year’s contestants regrettably were disappointed, everyone was treated fairly and the vast majority were pleased with the contest.”

The contest is a social-media hit, with one year’s event generating 900 blog and Twitter posts, 600 YouTube videos and 400 Instagram photos, helping Genghis Grill reach No. 11 on Franchise Times’ Fast and Serious ranking in March of the smartest-growing franchises. It has more than 110 stores. 

“Virtually every restaurant brand must face the double-edged nature of today’s social media environment,” Parikh said. “When it comes to negative reviews or comments, we try to be as proactive as possible and do everything we can to engage with disappointed customers.”

Proper disclaimers

Oscar Michelen, a New York attorney who handles entertainment-related cases but is not involved in the Genghis Grill affair, says it appears Genghis Grill included the proper disclaimers on its website and in official contest rules, so is unlikely to be subject to a legal challenge.

Some contestants claim they were required to make a purchase in order to participate, but Michelen says even if they have proof, the problems for Genghis Grill would be negligible. “In these kinds of cases, what is your damage?” is the question any court would ask. “You’re not all that harmed,” especially if contestants have been eating free food for 60 days.

But the court of public opinion is just getting started, and that’s where social media campaigns can run awry. Kelley O’Brien, interactive media manager for Krispy Kreme, put it this way on a conference panel last year about creating contests. If something goes wrong, “be honest with your public, because your public won’t keep it quiet,” she said. 

 Case in point is Kourosh Zakeri, a doctoral student in optometry at the University of Houston and a contestant in this year’s contest. He takes issue with the reviews on Yelp that contestants were asked to write, without disclosing they were eating food supplied for free by Genghis Grill—which he says violates Yelp’s rules. 

Zakeri became alarmed when the second-place winner later had her status rescinded, and received a $100 gift card instead of the stated $1,500 prize. And then the first place winner, who received $10,000, continued bragging about his methods to win.

“There’s this issue of personally feeling like we worked so hard to lose weight by eating less food, eating better and getting to the gym, and this person was doing it through weight-cutting,” Zakeri said about the winner. “On top of it there’s this public health issue, and he’s on public forums.”

Zakeri has tried to speak with Parikh and other Genghis Grill execs, but was left unsatisfied—although it seems his and others’ relentless complaints are getting through. He says he was surprised to see strong language included in a contest Genghis Grill launched for Mother’s Day. 

“I looked at their contest rules, and one of the second bullet points was: Any contestant who annoys or harasses the people who are running the contest will be disqualified, and any attempt by an entrant to annoy or harass the sponsor may place them in violation of civil and criminal law.” He hadn’t noticed any such language in the Health Kwest rules.

“My only thought was, maybe they’re trying to shut people off,” he says.

Barbara Nixon, another disgruntled contestant, is ready to ramp up again. “I’m sure I’ll be vocal about it and jump in,” says the software trainer who lived in Rogers, Arkansas, when she was a contestant but has since moved to Green Bay. “I would just like them to follow the guidelines that are in place by the Federal Trade Commission,” she says. She teaches public relations, and has posted many blogs about what she calls unethical practices by Genghis Grill in the contest. 

“I’m pretty big on ethics in general, and I don’t like to see people get away with things, paying halfhearted attention to it,” Nixon adds. “I don’t think it’s good for their brand.” 

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