Marketers of the Year No. 2: Popeyes
When Popeyes’ chicken sandwich returned after a two-month absence, customers were queued up to buy one—even those who helped create the hype.
Among them was Anselmo Ramos, founder and chief creative officer of Gut, one of two creative agencies working with Popeyes, who headed to a Miami Popeyes to meet colleagues. His daughters joined in, but not because Dad was part of one of the most successful product launches in culinary history. Teenagers Stella and Helena Ramos wanted to try the sandwich because it was trending on TikTok.
Before heading over, Ramos texted Fernando Machado, global chief marketing officer at Burger King who has oversight of Popeyes, to see if he wanted to tag along. The invitation came too late. Machado was already there and had bumped into the rest of the Gut crew.
“I’m here with your team,” replied Machado, who had to wait in line with everyone else to score a sandwich Nov. 3.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted the most talked-about sandwich in America. And how it got there is a tale about not just great product, but deft social media and marketing that knew when to speak up—and when not to.
Believing the hype
In 2019, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen hit the culinary jackpot with its $3.99 fried chicken sandwich. The launch led to the chain’s strongest growth in nearly 20 years. U.S. same-store sales shot up 10.2 percent in the third quarter, even though the sandwich at the time was in restaurants for only a few weeks.
“The brief that we sent out to the agencies was ‘Believe the hype,’” says Bruno Cardinali, Popeyes head of marketing since March, who worked on the brief with Machado before sending it to GSD&M and Gut.
Gut’s early-August launch campaign was a video showing the new sandwich being served at Sweet Dixie Kitchen. That was a tongue-in-cheek nod to #popeyesgate, an internet sensation that ignited in 2017 after the Long Beach, California restaurant was outed for reselling Popeyes tenders with waffles.
Things got really spicy later that month when Chick-fil-A, the leading chicken chain that is more than three times as large as Popeyes, touted its chicken sandwich by tweeting “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = Love.” It didn’t have to call out its new rival by name because of the buzz growing around the newest entrant in the portable fried chicken sweepstakes.
GSD&M was prepared for such a moment. In March, the agency and Popeyes established a “Code Orange Chat” on WhatsApp to track and react quickly to social media moments. The agency saw the Chick-fil-A tweet, weighed possible responses and within 15 minutes tweeted: “... y’all good?”
“This one just was short, it was quick, it was punchy, it worked,” said Angela Brown, social media strategist at GSD&M. “Because they [Popeyes] trusted our expertise and what we were saying, they didn’t second-guess this.”
After that, GSD&M’s creative team noticed that Twitter users, particularly Black Twitter, were driving a spike in interest. Between Aug. 12 and Aug. 31, there was one tweet per second about Popeyes.
Even the New Yorker weighed in with an Aug. 20 piece titled “The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America.”
Because no one predicted how much hype the product would generate, GSD&M was standing by with another campaign— “You won’t get it until you get it”—featuring user-generated reactions to the sandwich, says Cardinali. It was shelved soon after when Popeyes began running out of sandwiches. GSD&M pivoted to an apology campaign that began in late August and a bring-your-own-bun campaign in September.
Popeyes—acquired by Burger King’s parent company, Restaurant Brands International, in 2017—has sold fried chicken, including sandwiches at times, since 1972, though none approached this level of success.
“When we did sandwiches I just don’t feel like we did it right,” said Amy Alarcon, Popeyes’ head of culinary innovation, who has been with the chain since 2007.
This time around, Alarcon was adamant about certain things. She wanted brioche, and wanted it buttered before it was toasted. She found Chipico pickles—fresh, tart and tangy, “like the stealth missile of the sandwich”—from Chicago’s Vienna Beef. She stuck to Popeyes’ roots with the sauce, choosing Blue Plate, a mayo that got its start in Louisiana in 1927. “Everything about that sandwich needed to be the perfect portable piece of Popeyes that you can hold in your hand,” said Alarcon.
But while the buzz reached fever pitch, the hype at times turned dangerous. Many patrons grew frustrated upon seeing long lines, or seeing no sandwiches at all. In early September, a man allegedly pulled a gun in a Houston Popeyes after learning it was sold out of chicken sandwiches. Even after the sandwich was reintroduced, a man was fatally stabbed outside a Maryland Popeyes after reportedly cutting the line and arguing with another patron, who now faces murder charges. The chain stayed in touch with authorities as needed and the brand wisely stayed silent.
Popeyes chose Sunday, Nov. 3—National Sandwich Day—for the return of the sandwich. Chick-fil-A stumbled by sending an email encouraging its customers to celebrate with a Chick-fil-A sandwich, before remembering it is closed Sundays. After fans pointed out the gaffe on Twitter, GSD&M tweeted in response: “Seriously … y’all good?”
Another Popeyes ad borrowed from Michael Jordan’s 1995 return to basketball, showing the sandwich with the headline “I’m back.”
“With this kind of product,” said Ramos, “you don’t have to do much. It catches fire by itself.”
On Nov. 4, Popeyes’ stoked that fire as public relations agency Alison Brod hosted a tasting event at its New York office on Park Avenue South. Spicy and classic versions of the sandwich were served on clear plates, along with sparkling wine and Popeyes’ Bourbon Fudge Pie. On hand were Cardinali and Alarcon, who said Popeyes worked on the recipe for three years. “It’s a microcosm of our brand,” she said at the tasting.
Work on refining the brand’s appearance and positioning continues. Popeyes is weighing the future of Annie, a spokeswoman character created by GSD&M and played by actress Deidrie Henry, whose role was limited in the sandwich marketing.
“We’re evaluating and seeing options for the future for the brand and for the character,” Cardinali said.
Popeye’s sibling chain Burger King saw its own success with the launch of the Impossible Whopper. Burger King’s U.S. third-quarter comparable sales rose 5 percent, that chain’s strongest quarter since 2015. And shares of Toronto-based Restaurant Brands, which trade under the symbol “QSR,” an industry acronym for quick-service restaurant, rose above $79 at the end of August, when Popeyes ran out of the sandwich.
Next, Popeyes will take the sandwich beyond the U.S. “This is about to be a global phenomenon for us,” said Alacron.
Contributing: Adrianne Pasquarelli