Every business owner knows that social media is a great way to build brand awareness and promote a product or service. The most savvy companies, however, understand that social media platforms are more than just outlets for promotion—they’re a way to creatively engage customers and build relationships.

How, exactly do they do that? Well, the best way to learn how to use social media, of course, is from those that do it well. So, sit back and check out these five food companies that do an awesome job—and get a few lessons for your own PR efforts, too.

Whole Foods: Build a Community

Even though Whole Foods is a chain, it radiates a small town, community grocery store feel—both in person and through its social media presence. In addition to Whole Foods’ national Twitter account, it also has accounts for specific cities and areas of the country, which helps the company connect more closely with its customers, answer questions that are location-specific, and promote specials unique to certain areas.

Another key to Whole Foods' social media success is getting customers to talk with each other on social media. Last month, the company started holding weekly Twitter chats on Thursdays to encourage customer discussions on topics like holiday menu-planning and gluten-free cooking. When customers have the chance to share opinions and ask questions, it deepens their sense of community and their relationship to the company.

Chobani: Take it Offline

This yogurt company does a great job at spreading its culture through social media by taking social connections offline and into the real world. For instance, Chobani used Foursquare to promote its nationwide CHOmobile tour, where staffers handed out T-shirts and product samples to delighted fans.

Chobani also used social media to promote its role in sponsoring the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games. Chobani provided yogurt to the athletes at training centers and selected six U.S. Olympians to represent "Team Chobani." Proud that its protein-rich yogurt fueled athletes throughout the Olympics, Chobani encouraged fans to share stories of how the yogurt fueled their daily lives by using the #chobanipowered hashtag. Chobani also shared its excitement with fans by posting video interviews with Olympians on its YouTube channel and sharing the team members’ victories on its Facebook pages and Twitter feed.

Chipotle: Kick Customer Service Up a Notch

Chipotle shatters the lukewarm fast food customer service stereotype by taking a personal approach with its customers via social media. The company aims for a dialogue, responding to most questions within a couple of hours. Personalized chit-chat like “How's school going?” are a regular part of conversations with Facebook and Twitter followers, too.

Chipotle also mixes up the types of content it shares, which keeps its customers engaged and interested in what it has to share, while still making sure all its content aligns with the company’s core message of making “Food with Integrity.” Chipotle refuses to buy food from industrial farms, instead choosing to by buy all ingredients from family-owned and operated farms. To help its customers understand why this is important, Chipotle created an animated video clip about the impact of industrial farming on local farmers, animals, and the environment, accompanied by Willy Nelson singing. The YouTube video had over 7 million views—and sparked a conversation among fans that strengthened their relationship to the company's values.

Oreo: Ask Your Fans to Participate

Kraft uses social media to put a fresh twist on its timelessly classic cookie, the Oreo. The beloved black and white cookie celebrated its 100th birthday this year, and Kraft connected with its fan base through social media campaigns that give fans as much joy as twisting apart the cookies.

A recent Twitter campaign encouraged fans to use the hashtag #OreoPinata—each time the hashtag was used, it counted as a hit on the piñata, and the person to break the virtual piñata was rewarded with a free pack of Oreos. (Oreo gave away 30 packs per day for a week!)

And Oreo’s unique Daily Twist campaign brought fan engagement to a whole new level with a crowdsourced ad campaign. Oreo invited fans to submit their advertising ideas through Facebook and Twitter. The fans’ creative visions were brought to life with an event in Times Square, where advertising teams worked in a glass office to turn the ideas into actual campaigns.

Even though Oreos have been around forever, unique campaigns like these keep things fresh and keep fans engaged with the product.

Ben & Jerry's: Communicate Your Unique Brand

Ben & Jerry’s co-founders’ motto is, “If it’s not fun, why do it?” But the company isn’t just all fun and games, it’s also big on social responsibility. It’s a unique brand message—and one the company makes sure its audience knows all about via its social media channels. Much like the delicate balance between marshmallow and chocolate in a pint of Rocky Road, Ben & Jerry's balances its lighthearted tweets with a social message. (Think tweets about fair trade, followed up by tweets about Grateful Dead lyrics.)

Perhaps the best example of the company’s balance between fun and social good was when it used social media to find a creative use for leftovers—leftover characters that is. In 2011, the company launched a Twitter campaign that let users donate their unused Twitter characters to craft messages to raise awareness for World Fair Trade Day. Using a special Ben & Jerry’s app, users could tweet anything they wanted, and then the company would fill in the remaining characters with a message about fair trade goods. By having a little fun with the campaign, Ben & Jerry’s was able to spread a social message in a big way, while sharing a little bit about its brand.

There’s no single magic ingredient for a great social media campaign. Each of these companies brings their own unique flavor to their social media strategy, and they’ve all found something that works well for them. If you plan your strategy with these lessons in mind and think about the best way for your brand to connect with your audience, you can be reap the same sweet rewards.

Photo of CHOmobile courtesy of Chobani.