Three Lessons From the Fried Chicken Frenzy: Popeyes’ Brilliant Marketing Moment

November 15th, 2019 by Alison Zeringue

The drive-thru line on Sunday, Nov. 3 at a Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in Metairie blocked traffic and almost caused an accident in the traffic lanes as I drove by. The highly anticipated fried chicken sandwich that had sold out just two weeks after its original release was back on the menu. Meanwhile, tumbleweeds blew through the local Chick-Fil-A parking lot because… they’re closed on Sundays.

The Chicken Sandwich War: How It All Started

With the launch of Popeyes’ first-ever chicken sandwich in August 2019 and the Popeyes marketing team’s quick reply to a tweet by their rival Chick-Fil-A, The Great Chicken Sandwich War began. In case you were wondering, Twitter is most definitely still relevant in today’s marketplace and can have a direct impact on consumer behavior when used well. And, people are still petty.

Chick-Fil-A, while not without its own political controversy, remains one of the most popular fast-food chains in the nation and is known for its chicken sandwiches: bun, pickles, chicken. In the midst of Popeyes new product release on August 19, Chick-Fil-A touted their sandwich as “the original” on Twitter, seemingly throwing shade at Popeyes’ chicken sandwich:

In a matter of 15 minutes, the marketing team at Popeyes decided to reply quite simply with “…y’all good?” and Twitter went bananas. Chick-Fil-A’s original tweet had ~3,000 retweets while Popeyes’ response earned ~86,000.

From there, the Internet did its thing. Memes, gifs, homemade videos, and taste tests that compared the two chains’ sandwiches flooded social media feeds while the lines at Popeyes grew. Within two weeks, the 3,102 location restaurant chain ran out of its seven-week supply of chicken sandwiches.

Positioning: A Limited Time Offer or Just the Best Dang Chicken Sandwich?

Popeyes couldn’t have planned a better product release, and they really have social media to thank for its wild success. When they first announced the product (during Wendy’s campaign announcing the return of spicy nuggets), they made no mention of it being a limited time offer (LTO), which has become a frequently used tactic in the fast food industry. LTOs include things like Taco Bell’s nacho fries and the McRib at McDonald’s. Typically LTOs are launched with creative or gimmicky advertising messages making it known that the product is not a permanent menu item, creating a sense of urgency for the consumer to get it while it lasts.

Popeyes didn’t take that stance. Instead, they added the sandwich to the menu specifically positioning it to compete for Chick-Fil-A’s top spot in the chicken sandwich standings. And they used their advertising to challenge their competitor rather than pressure the consumer.

And well, people love a good competition. As the social media buzz grew, it caught the attention of news outlets, who are always looking for content the general public is interested in engaging with. And so began their coverage about Popeyes running out of product, celebrities joining in on the fun, and partaking in taste tests. This is when Popeyes experienced a huge jump in earned media value, according to Apex Marketing Group, who placed a $65 million media valuation on the national coverage Popeyes earned before, during, and immediately after the time the sandwich stock sold out.

UGC: The Power of User Generated Content

It’s the digital marketer’s dream: an idea, product, or creative approach that goes viral and sets the world on fire, creating more demand for the product than there is inventory. In today’s world of completely saturated and constantly flowing feeds, achieving that level of buzz can seem impossible. The key, as this case study shows, is to consider the opportunity for consumers to actively participate. Everyone’s a content producer (or “influencer” in their own right), so give the people something to talk about.

The perfect recipe in Popeyes’ case was starting slow and kicking it up a notch by engaging in some banter with Chick-Fil-A. This ignited a fire of user-generated-content which is inherently more viral than any single advertising or marketing message published by a brand. Wendy’s has been engaging in similar hilarity on Twitter for quite some time with its competitors and customers, but given Chick-Fil-A’s political notoriety, this was just the right chicken fight to pick.

Although the wave of UGC wasn’t even intentional on Popeyes’ part, their team did a great job of highlighting customers and showing social proof when announcing that the sandwich was returning (see: the first tweet embedded in this post).

3 Key Lessons Learned From Popeyes Brilliant Marketing Moment

  • Twitter is still relevant and people are still petty. They love a good competition and will jump at the chance to back a brand they feel loyal to. This nationwide game of chicken sandwich thrones began because of two tweets between rival fast food chains.
  • Smart competitive positioning can make or break a new product launch. When launching its first ever chicken sandwich, Popeyes did NOT focus on gimmicky advertising pushing that the product was only available for a limited time, which is a common tactic in fast food marketing. Instead, they positioned it for what it was, a challenge to direct competitor Chick-Fil-A, and it paid off in droves.
  • To truly ignite a viral fire digitally, marketers must give customers the opportunity to actively participate and then leverage the power of user-generated content.