Chew on this: The #chickenswars between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A haven’t fully played out, yet there are early marketing lessons to be learned.
Chicken sandwiches had been gaining slow-and-steady popularity among fast-food aficionados for more than a decade. During this time, industry behemoth Chick-fil-A nearly doubled its U.S. store count and hit $10 billion in sales by the end of 2018. But no one predicted the meteoric jolt the trend got when Popeyes debuted their version of a chicken sandwich in August.
The way it all played out is the stuff of pure viral marketing gold. Here are some “nuggets” the rest of us can take home.
Lesson 1: Be Careful When Picking a Fight
Popeyes took two years to perfect its chicken sandwich before debuting it. They knew it would be a big deal, and it was. As expected it sold well when it initially launched. But then, about a week later, Chick-fil-A decided to pick a fight on social media and a Twitter storm ensued.
Chick-fil-A’s passive-aggressive tweet “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the (love) for the original” was taken as shade toward Popeyes. As the New York Times described in suspenseful detail, Popeyes executives spent the next 15 minutes carefully crafting a response to insinuate Chick-fil-A must be feeling the heat of competition. The tweet read, quite simply, “…y’all good?”
And the fans went wild. The reply was retweeted more than 86,000 times—20x more than Chick-fil-A’s original tweet—and Popeye’s chicken sandwich sold out eight days later.
Lesson 2: But the Fight Might Be Worth Losing Anyway
Notice we didn’t say DON’T pick a fight. Just consider the potential outcomes. It’s easy to assume that since Chick-fil-A lost the social media smackdown that its chicken sandwich also lost market share.
But hold on.
Actual sales during that time are still being digested, but we do have results on brand awareness. According to YouGov’s BrandIndex for August 2019, Chick-fil-A’s word-of-mouth brand awareness remained higher than Popeyes the entire time. By the time the month concluded, Popeyes had managed to work its way up to nearly the same level of awareness—which is a big feat—but Chick-fil-A seemed to lose little in the process.
“If anybody thought Popeyes’ sandwich took away business from Chick-fil-A, it doesn’t appear to be the case. At least not from an attention standpoint. After all, people had to try both to know, didn’t they?” observed QSR Magazine’s Danny Klein. He shares some fascinating in-depth analysis from YouGov here.
Lesson 3: Even Local Businesses Can Benefit
Social media not only allows household brand names to wage spontaneous marketing battles, but it can help small businesses in the same space get attention, too.
“Because #ChickenSandwichWars was predominantly Twitter focused, we definitely saw a spike in Twitter engagement and mentions,” social media manager Jessica Manthe told us. Manthe tweets for Flyrite Chicken, a thriving local chicken joint in Austin, Texas.
“A lot of our fans went to bat for the brand and tweeted about [Flyrite] chicken sandwiches versus Popeyes and Chick-fil-A. Jumping in on this popular hashtag certainly garnered more engagement than our typical posts.”
Lesson 4: If You Can’t Beat Them, Choose Another Lane
And then there’s KFC, a brand that decided not to compete within the confines of a tasty bun. While the sandwich wars were playing out, KFC launched its Fried Wings in unique fashion: by selling out of 500 fried chicken-scented seasoned tickets for $75 each on ticket marketplace StubHub.
The chicken-place-of-our-childhoods embraces the stunt game and also loves to play with its food, trying crazy new things and regionalizing them on a global scale. Have you heard of KFC Indonesia’s chicken skin fries that rolled out earlier this summer and sold out on day one? How about KFC Philippines’ “Chizza” (pizza with a fried chicken crust)? And rumor has it KFC is testing out a sandwich after all, but using donuts as the buns.
In the past 10 years, Chick-fil-A has replaced KFC at the top of the chicken bucket list for U.S. consumers. But while KFC isn’t all the rage in the U.S. anymore, its worldwide sales grew 9% in Q1 of this year. Innovating on a worldwide stage is where KFC can outshine Chick-fil-A. While Chick-fil-A’s decidedly unadventurous menu resonates in the U.S., it doesn’t always translate internationally. Plus, Chick-fil-A has a pesky little image problem that just keeps growing. The latest example: The chain recently announced it’ll close its first U.K. restaurant just six months after it opened due to protests over the company’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
Popeyes is bringing back its chicken sandwich November 3 and vows it won’t run out, promising to serve it every day thereafter. This time it’s being proactive on social media and taking the first jab at Chick-fil-A. They’re launching on a Sunday and that’s no coincidence. Chick-fil-A famously isn’t open on Sundays.
How will Chick-fil-A and others respond? Will chicken sandwiches take even more market share in the coming months? How will Popeyes fare in the long run, and can they logistically pull it off this time?
The anticipation is delicious, isn’t it?