Game of Chicken Against Leader Pays Off for Chick-fil-A, Popeyes

By Sticking to Their Roots and Rib-Sticking Fare, Small Chains Make Big Gains Against Col. Sanders

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

CHICAGO ( -- The federal government is mandating calorie counts, cities and states are instituting trans-fat bans, and boomers are starting low-sodium diets. But fried chicken is still a good business for the chains willing to go whole hog. Last year, at a time when most Americans needed some good comfort food, Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, Bojangles', Church's and Zaxby's built sales and share in the chicken segment.

FINE FAST-FOOD: Chick-fil-A is offering fresh flowers, table delivery and fresh-ground pepper for salad.
FINE FAST-FOOD: Chick-fil-A is offering fresh flowers, table delivery and fresh-ground pepper for salad.
Chick-fil-A, for example, has gradually become a phenomenal growth story. Opening fewer than 100 stores each year, and all from cash on hand, the chain has only 1,500 locations. But its restaurants gross an average $3 million, more than the average McDonald's. And that's with shorter weeks: Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays for religious reasons.

Although KFC is still the chicken-category leader, the chain has lost nearly six points of market share since 2005 and two points last year alone, according to Technomic, to competitors who've gained by finding their core brand stories -- whether it be chicken or regional roots -- and pushing those hard in marketing efforts.

Once relegated to regional cult status, Chick-fil-A is becoming a bona fide national phenomenon. The chain will open its first Chicago area location in August. And while Chick-fil-A has stuck to fried-chicken sandwiches and customer service in the store, it and longtime agency Richards Group, Dallas, have stuck with cows, and "Eat Mor Chikin" for 15 years. It's a small but coveted business within the agency, Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy said, and thus the campaign stays fresh with a new group of creatives every 24 months. "So when they come on, they're already locked and loaded with ideas," he said.

While industry experts across the board rave about the chain's operations and customer service, Mr. Cathy said his wife recently visited a Chick-fil-A and not only got the incorrect meal, but thought she'd paid too much. Mr. . Cathy then patronized a competitor, circled the grand total on her receipt and taped it to their refrigerator. "It said, 'I'll be back when you get it right,'" he recalled.

Table-side service
Mr. Cathy takes such criticism very seriously. He instituted the "second-mile service" program at Chick-fil-A last year, retraining the brand's 62,000 employees to say things like "Yes, Ma'am" and "It's my pleasure to serve you." For dine-in customers, meals are delivered to the table, each adorned with a fresh-cut flower. Employees offer fresh-ground pepper with salads. The chain's sales grew 9% last year, to $3.2 billion.

Popeyes chief marketer Dick Lynch said when he arrived at the chain two years ago, he "saw the great culinary heritage of this brand and said, let's get back to the roots." At most brands, Mr. Lynch said, marketers have to search for a point of difference. But at Popeyes, there was a "real point of difference that came right from the food" -- its Louisiana heritage. So the chain changed its name to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, and changed its logo, from a cartoonish font to a fleur de lis. (Though founded in Louisiana, Popeyes is now based in Atlanta.) Mr. Lynch said the brand wasn't consciously glomming on to the national swell of support for New Orleans in recent years, but an understanding that regional cuisine has become and is likely to remain trendy with food lovers.

Unlike Chick-fil-A, however, Popeyes changed up its marketing. It embarked on its first year of national advertising in 2009 with agency GSD&M Austin, introducing Annie, a sassy, soulful cook with an ever-present apron, and an abundance of pride for her chicken, biscuits and fried shrimp. And the results didn't disappoint. Mr. Lynch said that for each week of national advertising, same-store sales were five points higher than during weeks of local advertising. For the year, same-store sales were up 0.6%, while the industry as a whole was down.

Bojangles' also prides itself in sticking to its chicken-and-biscuit roots. The chain's website proclaims that the core menu is the same as it was in 1977, although, "a few new items" have been "added in response to industry trends." Bojangles' sales grew 9% last year, to $660 million. But there's no question as to the core mission at either Bojangles' or Church's Chicken, said Darren Tristano, exec VP of Technomic. "They're remaining with who they are and what they mean to their consumer, and they're focused on that rather than being different things to different people," he said.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Church's is owned by AFC Enterprises, and erroneously described Popeyes' previous logo.

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