Brendan Kelly is the bassist and singer for Epitaph Records' punk band The Lawrence Arms, has appeared on The Daily Show, pens a fairly popular blog called Bad Sandwich Chronicles and has carved out a career as an advertising copywriter in recent years at different agencies in the Chicago area.
That'd all play pretty well at a class reunion, wouldn't it? Well, there's more.
Eight months ago, Kelly started a phenomenon called Nihilist Arby's, a darkly comical Twitter account that has attracted more than 100,000 followers. The achievement is definitely worth another paragraph or two on his Wikipedia page or—to borrow some of his fictional character's spirit—IN HIS OBITUARY, whenever his inevitable demise occurs on some sad, meaningless day.
The 38-year-old chatted with Adweek about the origin of Nihilist Arby's.
"Twitter is such a great medium, but it's misunderstood, generationally," he explained. "It's like an awesome newspaper where everyone can customize what they get by following certain entities, whether they want comedy, politics or naked chicks. But then you have these dumb corporations that just don't get it, you know? And fast-food brands unbelievably perpetuate the most terrible of ideas."
Kelly said he began thinking about how funny it would be if a social media manager for a restaurant chain "just lost it, after sending out yet another tweet about something [inane] like a new dipping sauce. And I said to whoever I was speaking to at the time, 'It should be called something incredibly stupid like Nihilist Arby's.'"
Cue animated light bulb above his head—a-a-a-a-nd scene!
So he launched the account in January, and Kelly's brand of absurdist, death-and-doom tweeting quickly garnered around 250 followers. "And then one day, I sent out a tweet and went to lunch," he recalled. "When I got back, I had, like, 13,000 followers. And it's just snowballed from there."
He didn't go to Arby's for lunch that day—though he's got nothing against the roast-beef slinger. In fact, when asked if the fast-food chain had contacted him, he sounded slightly disappointed that the company hadn't reached out.
Maybe its marketers should. At one point this year, per data from Simply Measured, Nihilist Arby's was getting better Twitter engagement than the real Arby's.
"[It] is a great example of successfully catering content to your target audience," remarked Kevin Shively, Simply Measured's content marketing manager. "[He has] capitalized off creating a witty, irreverent personality and in turn seen continued growth and increasing engagement for a parody account—something that's usually very hard to accomplish."
Bill Carter, a partner at digital agency Fuse, added: "Parodies work with youth culture. Whether it's Stephen Colbert, The Onion, or now Nihilist Arby's, teens and young adults always love a satirical voice willing to take a shot at a powerful foe."
Kelly doesn't make any money off Nihilist Arby's, yet it doesn't sound like he's going to give up his labor-of-love anytime soon. He tries to tweet once a day, targeting the lunch crowd at around 11:30 a.m. The punk rocker said he avoids "forcing" humorous copy onto his fans while trying to capture culturally relevant and timely jokes that fit his brand.
"I am not cranking them out just to do it," Kelly said. "If it doesn't make me laugh, I don't tweet it."
On that note, Simply Measured mined his tweets from the last several weeks, and the top 10 performers—when it comes to engagement metrics—are below.
While a few of them are probably too edgy for brands to steal marketing wisdom from, others will likely prove to be instructive for millennial-minded practitioners, and the tweets collectively paint a picture of how Kelly created a social-media sensation. It's hard to argue with thousands of retweets and favorites.
So enjoy. (Eat Arby's. Then, die.)
It's 3 am. You awake in a panic. You're wasting your life? You're alone? relax. You're totally insignificant & you'll die soon. Enjoy arbys.— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) July 16, 2015
Best case scenario: Gay or straight, your marriage ends when the person you love most dies and leaves you to rot in solitude. Eat at Arbys.— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) June 26, 2015
Hey @SUBWAY, where's your God now? Your first mistake was believing in anything. Life is vile. Eat arbys. Die quickly. Escape to blackness— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) July 7, 2015
Arbys #mancrushmonday goes out to man, crushed by the weight and cruelty of an indifferent universe. You'll never be this young again.— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) July 6, 2015
Never forget who you are: a tiny speck on an insignificant rock hurtling through a void. May as well fuck some strangers this weekend. Arbys— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) July 17, 2015
Drain the blood, cure and slice the flesh, season and fry the potatoes, feed them the sugar water. Be born. Toil. Die. Arby's. We sell food.— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) January 28, 2015
Arbys also identifies as black: the eternal blackness that eventually engulfs us all. Arbys: sandwiches in the abyss.— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) June 17, 2015
Today, celebrate a crumbling empire by shoveling fistfuls of Arbys meat into your bloated face and then drunkenly blowing off your toe. #usa— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) July 4, 2015
You've shit your pants again. The Doors are on the radio. The gin's nearly gone. It's almost noon. Stop by arbys. No one is here. Die alone.— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) July 23, 2015
Ever wake up and just want to die? Go ahead. No one will miss you. Arbys. Food.— Nihilist Arby's (@nihilist_arbys) July 26, 2015