The #Saltbae Phenomenon: What We Can Learn About Content Marketing From Dubai’s Social Media Sensation

If you haven’t heard of SaltBae by now, you are officially living under a rock.

Nusret Gocke, otherwise known as SaltBae on social media, is a Turkish butcher at the helm of wildly popular steakhouse Nusr-et. Reportedly born into poverty, he worked his way up in the restaurant world in pursuit of a single goal: to open and operate his own restaurant, which he achieved at the age of twenty seven.

Today, Nusr-et has five locations in Turkey, one in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi, and soon, one in New York City, the most competitive city for food and beverage operators in the world. If he succeeds in the Big Apple, then this rags-to-riches story is one for the history books.

Not because he has consistently persevered against the odds, but because his unique social media presence helped him do so. Frankly, I can’t think of another Internet celebrity who has managed to leverage social media so successfully and capture the world’s imagination the way he has.

It started with a short video posted to Nusr-et’s Instagram page (the restaurant is spelled Nusr-et, and is a play on words: ‘et’ in Turkish means meat). It shows him slicing and salting a tender slab of meat at his restaurant in Dubai. Unsmiling and wielding a big knife, he cuts with steely precision and delicately sprinkles a handful of salt that sparkles as it cascades down his arm, some of it getting caught in his arm hair.

It has over 13.6 million views.

Ottoman steak 🔪

A post shared by Nusr_et#Saltbae (@nusr_et) on

It is food porn with all the finer points of story telling: dramatic tension, visceral resolution, and a whimsical finale. Nusret has subdued this rather large piece of meat, and if there is still any question about his ability, he reveals slick salt moves that affirm only he can do what he does. Nusret the humble Butcher is now Nusret the Boss, the undisputed scion of cool (an image he cultivates with relish).

Graphic of Nusret as The Godfather

The video went viral almost instantly and gave rise to the hashtag #Saltbae. Everyone from college students to NFL and Premier League players were copying his signature salt move in video, photo, and meme format. King Abdullah of Jordan invited Nusret to barbecue with him. A quick search on Instagram reveals more than 220,000 posts, and almost all from people who have never dined at Nusr-et. News outlets caught wind of the story, street artists painted murals, and at least one clever developer created an iPhone app with an emoji of Nusret sprinkling salt. It was all about that salt life.

Premier League player Danny Welbeck copies #Saltbae on the field

A mural of saltbae in Australia

The restaurant’s Instagram following is currently at a staggering 5.5 million and growing. That is double the combined Instagram following of celebrity chefs Mario Batali (456k) and Anthony Bourdain (2.2 million). In less than a month, #Saltbae became a household name.

I’m not a leading expert on social media strategy, but I have created and managed the marketing and digital communications for two restaurants, both my own, and learned a few things along the way. Well before Mr. Gocke became the celebrity he is today, I can tell you he was doing a lot of things right.

An active Instagram user, he had already accumulated over 100,000 followers, a large chunk after opening in Dubai. That’s a pretty big number. True, he was already a success in his native Turkey. But restaurants can have a hard time growing their following. Beautiful food photography always gets a lot of likes and eyeballs, but if that’s all you are posting it gets old pretty fast. In Dubai, the challenge is two-fold: in a market saturated with food and beverage concepts, finding a voice that resonates and rises above the noise is that much harder.

Here are the top eight ways Nusret is consistently striking social media gold:

1. He lets his personality shine on social media. One look at his Instagram page and you know you’re dealing with one flamboyant dude. He is sassy and funny, and he knows it. His social media voice is strong, unique, and confident. The best part: no other brand will be able to replicate it without looking like an obvious rip off.

Saltbae poses with a cigar in front of a photo of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar

2. He is serious about his product and shows you how. His images display the beautiful marbling and colour of his meats. Furthermore, he goes to great lengths to ensure consistency and quality by controlling the entire process. His meat is literally farm-to-table. Videos of him massaging cows may be funny, but also convey a key brand message: Nusr-et is serious about the meat it serves.

Saltbae faces a cow at his cattle farm

3. He uses the medium of video. Cisco projects that by 2019, 86% of global consumer traffic will be video, including TV, video-on-demand, and peer-to-peer networks. Internet video has an engaged and growing audience and companies not following this marketing trend will not be able to connect with audiences or expand their reach.

4. He uses the right platform for the region. Instagram is popular in the U.A.E., and king with one demographic in particular: locals, or the small Emirati population with mighty purchasing power. The UAE also has 78% smartphone penetration, the highest in the world. That means lots of well-off people taking photos and videos of products and experiences and sharing on social media. What more could a brand ask for?

Instagram has been critical to Nusret’s success online and as a business. He has succeeded in attracting locals as regular customers, so much so that he counts both the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai as frequent patrons. Anyone who has lived here long enough knows there is no higher stamp of approval than a visit from a member of the ruling royal family. And, the fastest route to Instagram engagement and follows in the region.

5. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. As a former restaurant owner, I can tell you this is a rare quality in a chef. Especially a famous one. As much as I love food and appreciate the passion and drive of talented chefs, there is an annoying tendency to install them on a pedestal and give them other-worldly qualities. It’s food, guys. Not a cure for cancer. Nusret is relatable, human, and approachable, and very different from someone like chef Mario Batali who has a reputation for being arrogant. In marketing terms, there is no better strategy. Every brand strives to make a connection with their target audience on a human level.

6. He delivers on his promise. If you have the chance to dine at Nusr-et, you should. It is the best meat I have ever had. Hands down.

7. He is genuine. I was invited to dine at Nusr-et a few days after it opened. I saw the man himself, on the grill and approached cautiously to have a look. He was wearing a tight white t-shirt, a perfect tan, and a slicked back pony tail. He gave me a big smile and insisted I try a piece of his “spaghetti” – thinly sliced pieces of steak that are quickly seared on the grill. Later in the evening, he served us at our table, like he did every other guest, and insisted the ladies take photos with him. He is quirky and fun, and salts everyone’s steak table-side. You can find him at his restaurant everyday, working hard and putting in long hours. He doesn’t speak any English. But his big personality and passion for what he does breaks through the communication barrier.

8. He posts plenty of photos of smiling customers. If your product or service makes people happy, you should share that on social media. In his case, it helps that celebrities like Leonardo di Caprio enjoy his food. If you too have a celebrity clientele, that should be shared where possible.

Nusret is a big hit with locals and tourists in Dubai
How will he do in New York? Given his drive, unrelenting ambition, and ability to connect with people with such ease, I think he will take the city by storm. I for one will be following his social media closely to learn further best practices on brand content and engagement.

All images courtesy Nusr-et’s ridiculously good Instagram page

Famed New York Brunch Spot Sarabeth’s Opens in Dubai. Is This A Good Thing? 

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Earlier today, I had lunch at Burger Joint, and coffee and dessert at Sarabeth’s. If you are familiar with these names, you might assume I’m on vacation in New York.

In the last five years there has been explosive growth in Dubai’s food and beverage industry. International chains have proliferated, and many use Dubai as a launch pad to test the waters before expanding to other markets in the GCC, like Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Shake Shack, The Cheesecake Factory, and Canadian coffee behemoth Tim Horton’s all followed this strategy.

It’s not surprising that brands are eager to enter the market. After all, consumers here wield enormous purchasing power. Nike, for example, has created the Pro Hijab to target female athletes in the GCC specifically. Disposable income is high and Emiratis travel abroad frequently throughout the year. This means exposure to the latest in luxury goods, food, beauty, and fashion. Multinational companies in the region are turning profits by capitalising on strong recognition of and demand for international brands.

What is surprising is seeing small boutique American eateries, wildly popular in their hometowns and many owner-run, spring up halfway across the world in Dubai. Burger Joint is an unassuming, low-key hotspot tucked behind a curtain in downtown New York. Tell a New Yorker the only other Burger Joint in the world is near downtown Dubai and they will probably balk in disbelief.

It’s not the only one. Neighborhood favorite Clinton Street Baking Company, famous for their fluffy and buttery pancakes, have one location in New York City – the only one in the U.S. – and two locations and a foodtruck in Dubai. Cupcake giant Magnolia Bakery has two spots in the Big Apple, and selected Dubai for expansion. Now, it’s popping up outside the Gulf. On a recent trip to Amman, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw hoarding for Magnolia on a shop front in the centre of town. In Jordan, well beyond the confines of Dubai’s glittering malls.

Why is this? Sometimes, restaurants like Sarabeth’s, who saw their heyday in the 90’s, arrive in emerging markets to resuscitate their ailing brand and bottomline.

Secondly, wealthy investors are always on the lookout for money making opportunities. For some reason, there is a widely held belief that opening a restaurant in Dubai is a good investment. Anything that generates buzz abroad, the theory goes, will also be popular here, even the smaller independent brands.

The range of dining options is indeed impressive. Visitors are always shocked to see just how many restaurants exist, and keep opening, in Dubai.

But there is a cost. Dubai now faces a conundrum: an ambitious city attracting the world, and in doing so, pushing out homegrown talent.

In a saturated marketplace, local restauranteurs face an uphill battle. In order to be truly successful in the food and beverage space, Dubai needs to stop importing brands, both known and unknown, and start supporting and creating more of their own. They do exist, but not nearly at the level needed to compete globally.