5 marketing lessons from the chicken sandwich wars
It feels as though every restaurant is busy hawking a fried chicken sandwich. From TV ads and billboards to TikTok campaigns and Twitter giveaways, a variety of marketing approaches are in play.
No one predicted the massive success of Popeyes' sandwich in 2019. Now, several chains are eager to win a piece of the market, and Chick-fil-A continues to lead with the sandwich it introduced 57 years ago. Both of those chains saw double-digit sales gains in 2020 and competitors saw sales rise, too.
Marketers in other industries can study the playbooks of major fast feeders to see how they, too, can crack into existing categories.
1. Do your homework
The premise seems standard: Get some boneless chicken. Bread it. Fry it. Put it on a bun. And don’t forget the pickles. But the venerable fast-food chicken sandwich is far from simple.
According to Chick-fil-A, founder Truett Cathy tested hundreds of recipes before he came up with its original chicken sandwich in 1964. Popeyes, KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy's and others have more recently tested everything from bun softness to pickle thickness with exacting detail.
“At the end of the day, it’s not advertising that wins, it’s your product,” says Geoff Cottrill, co-founder of Marvin Media, and former senior VP of marketing at Coca-Cola North America, who keeps an eye on the industry from Atlanta, home to Chick-fil-A. “It needs to be differentiated, and it needs to be really good.”
2. Quality matters more than marketing
Once you get the product right, stand by it. Chick-fil-A could have gotten nervous when it saw Popeyes and others dive in. Instead, it stuck to its original recipe, trusting its own process, says Jasmine Dadlani, chief strategy officer at McKinney.
And try to resist any pressure to cut costs or to rush a product out in order to compete. When joining a crowded category flaws will stand out, even with lots of ads. “Do you have a great product, do you really stand behind your product, and is it something consumers want?” asks Cottrill.
Popeyes did homework before its launch and that continues. It tracks performance monthly and continues to do taste tests, says Bruno Cardinali, chief marketing officer, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen U.S.
3. Know your brand voice
Each chain has a story it’s trying to tell.
Popeyes crafts messages that speak to its fans. Its 2019 “... y’all good?” response to a tweet from Chick-fil-A that read “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = Love” quickly hit the right tone after months of honing its brand voice.GSD&M, which came up with that famous tweet, noticed that Twitter users, particularly Black Twitter, were driving a spike in interest. Between Aug. 12 and Aug. 31 of 2019, there was one tweet per second about Popeyes.
“Keep refining that positioning, that tone of voice, that personality,” says Cardinali.
Popeyes continues to emphasize its sandwich as “the sandwich,” doubling down on its hype. Knowing rivals are gearing up for sandwich launches “reinforces the importance of our brand positioning,” says Cardinali.
And when Wendy’s rolled out its sandwich last year, it used some of its signature social media sass, poking at Popeyes. One tweet read, “Y’all want a free chicken sandwich?”
Along with billboards and TV spots for the masses, KFC aims to find younger diners. So it turned to TikTok, where septuagenarian Lili Hayes hyped its sandwich in her feisty tone. It was a calculated risk. “Nothing happens that’s great when you’re comfortable,” says KFC U.S. CMO Andrea Zahumensky, who announced her departure from the company today.
A McDonald’s campaign taps into love for products such as its fries. “It all came down to channeling our fans,” says Jennifer Healan, VP of U.S. marketing, McDonald’s.
“They’ve all relied on their equity and their DNA and they’ve all kind of explained what they’re bringing to the party that’s different and that’s true to their brand,” says Dadlani.
Still, missteps happen. Chick-fil-A surely expected its August 2019 tweet would entice fans, not lead to a hit moment for Popeyes. Then, Popeyes miscalculated and ran out of its "it" product. Later, Chick-fil-A stumbled. When Popeyes set the sandwich's return for November 3, National Sandwich Day, Chick-fil-A emailed customers to suggest buying its sandwich. But that year, Nov. 3 was a Sunday, when the chain is famously closed. And Burger King's launch was reportedly delayed in some markets due to a pickle shortage.
4. It’s OK to be late to the party
There can still be lots of room to grow in an established category.
Chick-fil-A posted a 13% jump in 2020 U.S. systemwide sales to nearly $13.75 billion, retaining its No. 3 perch, according to Technomic. Just how big is Chick-fil-A? KFC and Popeyes, the next largest chicken-centric chains, also grew and together pulled in less than $10 billion in U.S. sales. They rank 14th and 15th overall.
“Don’t shy away just because somebody owns the conversation from the start,” says Dadlani.
Franchisees were eager to get a sandwich sooner, but chains including McDonald’s did their homework first. “We listened to our fans for years to understand what they were craving, so we really took the time to make sure we got this right for them,” says Healan.
5. Follow a trend with staying power
Chicken sandwiches tap into multiple trends. They appeal to those cutting back on red meat consumption. They are portable and hold up well in delivery. They’re comfort food. And younger people buy them more frequently, notes Zahumensky, citing NPD Group data.
Overall, chicken is hot. Technomic found sales at limited-service chicken chains rose 9% last year, outpacing burger chains' 0.3% growth. Other categories fell.
“The consideration for chicken, I think, is here to stay,” says Cardinali.