How Popeyes' chicken sandwich won the internet one post at a time
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Popeyes, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s are not exactly fine-feathered friends. But Popeyes’ new fried chicken sandwich—and its deft PR, online video and social media strategies—certainly challenged the pecking order of those rival chains.
On August 12, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen introduced the chicken sandwich, a no-frills $3.99 latecomer in a crowded segment of the fast food market. Just 15 days later, Popeyes realized it was running out of the chicken much faster than anticipated and temporarily pulled the item from its menus.
Rather than try to contain the PR crisis, Popeyes used the ensuing frenzy to increase demand. On August 27, the company posted a video on its official Twitter account thanking customers for their fanatical devotion to the sandwich, stitching together clips of customers gobbling the sandwich with news reports of the long lines and “Sold Out” window signs posted at Popeyes locations. The chain announced it had run out of the sandwich, but that it would be back.
By then, Popeyes was in the midst of trading social media barbs with its rivals—the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars—and is clearly winning the fight at the checkout counter. Largely on the strength of sales of the chicken sandwich, Popeyes U.S. comparable-store sales increased more than 10 percent during the third quarter, its best result in two decades, according to the company—and led Ad Age to name the brand the No. 2 Marketer of the Year.
August 19: D-Day
On the morning of August 19, Chick-fil-A needled Popeyes in a tweet that seemed to mock the chain for jumping on the bandwagon with its own chicken sandwich, using the backdrop of a vintage photo of a fast-food restaurant employee toiling in the kitchen, along with a heart emoji embedded in the headline, “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the [love] for the original.”
Popeyes’ senior marketing leaders, including head of North America marketing Bruno Cardinali, quickly assembled at the company’s Miami headquarters with a group that included communications staff, legal experts and social media teams from GSD&M. Their rapid-fire response came within minutes: a re-tweet of the Chick-fil-A message along with a simple two-word reply: “Y’all good?”
The quick decision was the result of months of careful planning, says Angela Brown, social strategist at GSD&M. “The reason it happened so quickly is that we had established trust with the client in the beginning of the year,” she says. “A lot of other clients would have been too scared to act.”
BYOB redefined, open Sundays
As Popeyes loyalists awaited the return of the chicken sandwich, the chain served up some more marketing hijinks. Having seen a handful of reports featuringcustomers waiting in line inside a Popeyes location with slices of bread, GSD&M decided to memorialize the “Bring Your Own Bun” method in a new digital video with shots of scorned customers voicing skeptical reactions to different DIY solutions.
“It was a few days after the Sold Out announcement, and people were getting a little cagey with us on social media,” explains Randy Romero, associate director of social media strategy at the agency. “The video was our way of poking back and trolling them in a self-deprecating way.”
On October 28, Popeyes took another dig at Chick-fil-A in an online video, produced by Gut, heralding the return of the chicken sandwich. The arrival was set for National Sandwich Day, Sunday, November 3. Popeyes, which had noted the calendar coincidence in meetings as far back as March, couldn’t resist reminding customers that it was open on Sundays whereas Chick-fil-A, in a longtime policy of religious observance, was not. A sleight of hand using stickers on a highway road sign, placing the words “Open Sunday” under Popeyes’ name, did the trick.
The marketing gods gave Popeyes yet another treat for Halloween. On October 31, just three days after Popeyes posted its “Road Sign” video, Chick-fil-A was forced to awkwardly apologize for an email it had sent earlier in the week urging customers to place their orders on National Sandwich Day, seeming not to notice that it landed on . . . a Sunday. Within minutes, Popeyes’ social media team at GSD&M tweeted out a screen shot of the Chick-fil-A email apology along with a double-twist of the knife: “Well, this is awkward...” and, echoing its previous missive, “Seriously... Y’all good?”
The return of the Popeyes chicken sandwich on November 3 brought more PR wins and glowing online customer reviews. This time, Popeyes insisted it would have enough supply to keep the sandwich as a permanent menu item. To reinforce that message, the company sent a convoy of trucks into major metro areas and filmed the delivery of its chicken sandwiches to giddy recipients, posting the Publishers Clearing House-inflected videos online.
Meanwhile, the food fight on social media continued. Popeyes recently reignited its viral feud with Chick-fil-A on Twitter during the week before Thanksgiving, tweeting, "I'm gonna tell my kids this is the Original Chicken Sandwich" alongside a shot of its own chicken sandwich. The battle will likely continue to rage on, and expand, with McDonald’s now testing a new crispy chicken sandwich of its own.
Having declared victory on the internet, Popeyes opened up a new front against Chick-fil-A before the holiday break with a series of classified print ads from Gut in newspapers including The New York Times, The New York Post, the Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. Although the part-time job postings don’t mention Chick-fil-A specifically, they target “chicken sandwich professionals” who have experience putting “bun + chicken + pickle” together and are available on Sundays.
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