Power of Louisiana, Social Media Help Popeyes Stand Out in Chicken Fight

CMO Richard Lynch on the Brand's Latest Coup Over KFC and Who That Popeyes Twitterer Really Is

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For a moment today, Times Square was blanketed in orange, as Popeyes, with hundreds of fans decked in its signature color, celebrated and announced its latest victory: Its Spicy and Mild Bonafide bone-in fried chicken beat out KFC Original Recipe in a national taste-test.

The scene in Times Square.
The scene in Times Square. Credit: AP
A microsite went live today heralding the win, which will also be promoted in new advertising that breaks Monday, said Chief Marketing Officer Richard Lynch. Advertising from agency GSD&M will run on national TV and on local TV and radio, as well as in USA Today; the announcement will also take center stage in point-of-purchase displays in restaurants and in direct mail. Creative reintroduces the slogan, "Love That Chicken," while incorporating the new "Popeyes Beat KFC" theme.

"The creative idea is pretty clever; it's consistent with our point of difference, which is Louisiana," Mr. Lynch said. "So we're using our Louisiana culinary roots and comparing them to our competitor's Kentucky roots." The taste-test win "will be the driving force in our campaign throughout the month of September, and to some degree, beyond," he said.

Indeed, today's announcement is one more feather in the cap for Popeyes, which, under Mr. Lynch's marketing leadership, has seen boosts in same-store sales and market share. He took the helm in February 2008, and the quick-serve chicken concept adopted a national ad strategy from GSD&M in 2009. A repositioning grounded in its Louisiana roots, including a logo redesign and a name change to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, rounds out his busy two-plus years as CMO, a role in which he's been able to, as he explained, put into practice all that he taught while in consulting and agency roles, at places such as Campbell Mithun Advertising, earlier in his career.

He sat down with Ad Age to discuss the brand's latest coup, the importance of staying the course and who that Popeyes Twitterer really is.

Ad Age: Why did you feel that comparing yourselves to KFC in a taste test was the best strategy for the brand?

Richard Lynch
Richard Lynch
Mr. Lynch: Popeyes is a brand that has really been focused on one thing in its 38 years, and that's just delivering great food. We knew in our hearts that Popeyes was better than KFC and we asked ourselves, "What if everybody knew?" We believed we would win the taste test. When you're a brand that's about the food and you believe you have a superiority claim, you can't not do it.

Ad Age: With other smaller players in the chicken quick-service restaurant category like Chick-fil-A making share gains, why continue to pound against the biggest player, KFC?

Mr. Lynch: KFC dwarfs all of us. In 2008 it was over three and a half times our size in share. By 2010, we've narrowed that down to almost two and a half times our share. We and others have made a lot of competitive inroads. We've made momentum, and when you have momentum, the best thing to do is step on the gas.

Ad Age: This follows last week's announcement that for the ninth consecutive quarter, you outperformed chicken QSR in comp sales. To what do you attribute that?

Mr. Lynch: Focus on our famous and favorite menu items, our Bonafide Chicken, our Butterfly Shrimp Tackle Box and our Crawfish Festival. Our focus on that, our positioning focus on Louisiana, significantly improved operations, Annie the spokesperson. It's really all come together to fuel these results.

Ad Age: You've been playing up the Louisiana heritage in your advertising for about two years now, right? Are you content with that strategy and brand story?

Mr. Lynch: Clearly it's our rudder. I can never say never, but I think it'd be ill-advised to move away from that right now. New product innovation is key, but our Louisiana-ness will drive our product development. In June we introduced Wicked Chicken and Cane Sweeeet Tea. June's promotion has been the most successful national promotion in the brand's history.

A lot of retailers struggle with a branding spot vs. a traffic-building spot. If what you're doing to drive traffic reinforces your brand, you can do both.

Ad Age: What are the latest results since shifting to a national ad strategy in 2009 with GSD&M?

Mr. Lynch: We had come off two-plus years of negative same-store sales and several years of declining traffic -- 2009 was the first year in several that the traffic decline was reversed, and our same-store sales were up 0.6% and our share was the best in 10 years. So far this year, in the quarter we just reported ended June, Popeyes was up 0.4% and chicken QSR was down 11.4%.

Ad Age: How did the franchisees feel about the transition from regional/local advertising to national advertising parked at one agency?

Mr. Lynch: Varying degrees of acceptance. We had to prove the results because the brand up until then had been all local spending controlled more at the DMA level. So we kind of jumped in together. They were courageous to go along with us and explore a strategy that was significantly different than what it had been in the past. And now that we're seeing together how we're so dramatically outperforming our competitors, I think they're willing to explore it further.

Ad Age: How's your social-media strategy paying off?

Mr. Lynch: We were pretty hot on Twitter for awhile, but now we've been getting a lot of traction on Facebook. It's growing very quickly. The sweet-tea launch had a significant Facebook component to it because we didn't have as many traditional broadcast dollars to dedicate to it, so we relied on Facebook more than we had in the past and it appeared to be successful. We had a free-tea giveaway that was advertised only on Facebook, we had a daily T-shirt giveaway, we had a free gift-card giveaway. Then we used two microsites to introduce this campaign today. It started on Aug. 2 with a "Love That Chicken" website. It was surreptitiously designed to count down to [the reintroduction of] "Love That Chicken." But what it really was was a countdown to today's "Popeyes Beat KFC" announcement, so the URL as of today is PopeyesBeatKFC.com.

We haven't consciously moved away from Twitter, we're just getting more traction on Facebook. We've been able to see more traffic come from it, more buzz come from it. Nothing against Twitter, we are just getting more traction on Facebook. There is a cult nature about this brand that lends itself nicely to social media.

Ad Age: So who is the Popeyes Twitterer?

Mr. Lynch: We have a team. It's in the PR group, technically. Three people. They have PR titles. Our social-media resides in the PR department. The marketing people are the ones that drive the needs and the strategy. The PR people literally create the content.

Ad Age: Their names?

Mr. Lynch: Karlie Lahm, Kelsey Schmitt and Alicia Thompson.

Ad Age: They've done a good job of having a consistent voice for the brand.

Mr. Lynch: There is a very defined voice that is very reflective of the attitude of the brand -- the recognition that we're a challenger brand, kind of fun, really serious about the food -- and they're really captured that nicely in the voice.

Ad Age: You've been in your post as CMO for about 28 months. What's your secret to longevity, and how do you plan to stick around and bust the stats?

Mr. Lynch: Average tenure is 23 months. My son who is in advertising, too, sent me an e-mail [on that day] and said, "Well, Dad, you officially made it." So my wife and I went out and had dinner.

Stay focused. Stay courageous. Resist the temptation to change strategies every quarter.

Ad Age: How has an agency and consulting background served you in your current role?

Mr. Lynch: My background is unusual for a CMO -- not only from the agency side but from the account-planning side. I led the account-planning side at Campbell Mithun. There's a certain limitation when you're on the agency side. You can have the greatest, most profound insight, but if the client for any reason resists it, it's not going to drive the brand in its entirety, the way you envisioned it. Typically the planners' insights can be limited to the brand communications, per se. And what's been really interesting about what I've gotten to do is taking the skill set and talent that I learned in account planning, identifying brand insights, and now getting to drive the ship myself.

And what's fascinating about bringing account planning [experience] to a CMO role is the insight about the brand doesn't stop with communications; it's not just about the advertising. Our collective understanding of the brand has been the rudder, the True North; it has shaped everything we as a leadership team have done over the last two years. I just think it's notable and its really helped me at Popeyes. Popeyes was a diamond in the rough when we got there. There was such a point of differentiation, which was its Louisiana-ness that was there, and what I had the opportunity to do was really unleash the power of Louisiana and that's what's propelled this brand to where we are now.

Ad Age: What keeps you up at night?

Mr. Lynch: The challenge to constantly do better. The challenge to deliver even stronger top-line and more profitable bottom-line sales. The mountain does just keep getting steeper.

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