Strategy: New focus at Popeye's

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Mardi Gras may be long over, but not in Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits' new $20 million campaign. The new effort, breaking today, puts the accent on Cajun rather than chicken, evoking the raucous spirit of Bourbon Street revelry to spotlight its breadth of offerings including crawfish, jambalaya and po' boy sandwiches.

Despite the popularity of the No. 2 chicken chain's three-year effort featuring a men-in-black duo named Red and Zeke trying to save people from bland chicken, the campaign fell short in merchandising the full menu. "It has more to do with the fact that advertising has a lot to say not just about our core menu, but our [menu] strategy over the last six years in introducing new products that the competition would have a hard time doing," said Philip Fogleman, Popeye's director advertising.

The result is a series of spots showing party animals cavorting in a French Quarter-like setting, passing groaning trays of Popeye's food and talking about why they love the taste.

"How do you do something mainly about chicken but that can embrace other products, and how do you introduce the world to [Popeye's] Cajun profile without being swamps and backwater?" said Rob Reilly, senior VP-group creative director at Havas Advertising's Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, New York. "So we came up with the festival idea born out of the Mardi Gras theme with good times, good music and great food. If Mardi Gras is the ultimate festival, we are the Mardi Gras of chicken." The concept was initially tested last year.

chicken plateau

Popeye's parent, AFC Enterprises, which also owns Church's Fried Chicken, Cinnabon and other quick-serve chains, does not break out sales for Popeye's. But Technomic pegged its sales at $1.1 billion in 2000, the most recent year for which it has figures. That gives Popeye's 9.7% of the total fast-food chicken category, just above No. 3 Chick-fil-A but well behind Tricon Global Restaurants' KFC, with a 38.8% share of the category, according to Technomic.

Popeye's move comes as fast-food chicken sales plateau. The category had been posting a robust 20-year growth rate of 5.4%, edging out the total quick service category's 5.2%, but from 1999 to 2000, chicken-chain sales fell less than 1% while fast food grew 3.8%.

According to NPDFoodworld, total consumption of chicken at restaurants was flat during 2001, although some items, including wings, strips and spicy varieties grew 4%. Fried chicken consumption is not growing, while consumption of roasted birds slipped 1%. But that hasn't stopped burger chains from playing a game of chicken with the big birds: McDonald's Corp. is launching a new Chicken Selects line, while Burger King Corp. unveils a Chicken Whopper.

"Over the last 20 years, the growth of chicken sandwiches at traditional burger places and alternatives at chicken places keeps the category very relevant," said Harry Balzer, VP at NPDFoodworld. "Wings are the latest in this string of new ideas."

Defying a sales slump that sent the category leader reeling through most of 2001, KFC has fought back with a new ad push touting spicier flavors and bucket chicken via Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, starring Jason Alexander, with the theme, "It's not fast food, it's KFC." Sales during the fourth quarter rebounded 7%. In addition, the company opened its first sub-brand wing concept in Austin, Texas, called WingWorks.

smaller fry

Most of KFC's much smaller challengers enjoyed modestly strong sales. Privately held Chick-fil-A broke the 1,000 unit mark and the $1 billion sales mark in 2001 and after two years of testing, the Atlanta-based chain is launching a trio of flat-bread wraps, called Cool Wraps. This summer, the chain will break a new branding effort via Richards Group, Dallas.

AFC sibling Church's has been in a state of flux, posting weak same-store sales in the first half of 2001, but improving in the second half. It hired Ann Stone as its new global marketing head in July. Omnicom's Bayless-Cronin, Atlanta, handles.

Meanwhile, McDonald's Corp.'s Boston Market is working with its agency, Interpublic Group of Cos.' Suissa Miller, Los Angeles, to develop new executions for its 18-month-old "slow down" campaign as the chain adds grilled boneless chicken and salads to expand its menu.

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