Lessons from the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich War

Lessons from the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich War

Lessons from the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich War banner

The game of chicken (sandwiches) started on August 12, 2019, with a simple Tweet from Popeyes announcing their fried chicken sandwich: “Chicken. Brioche. Pickles. New. Sandwich. Popeyes. Nationwide. So. Good. Forgot. How. Speak. In. Complete. Sandwiches. I mean, sentences.” Born and raised on Chick-fil-A in the South, I know the culinary rapture that is a fried chicken sandwich. It’s nearly transcendental, a sin that you tend to crave on Sundays (the only day the Georgia-based restaurant is closed). Carbs and deep-fried poultry should make it forbidden, but all forgiven at first bite.

When I first moved to the North nearly 10 years ago, I evangelized for the fast-food chain … until 2012 when headlines of its corporate donations left a bad taste in my mouth. Despite the fact that I no longer have to cross the Mason-Dixon Line to reach the restaurant’s drive-thru, I haven’t had Chick-fil-A since.

Needless to say, I was near ecstasy last weekend when a photo of the Popeyes chicken sandwich from The New Yorker with the title “The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America” popped up on my Instagram feed.

Raise your hand if you need saving … keep it up if you need a fried chicken sandwich.

Little did I know, the chicken sandwich frenzy was in full fervor. Fans were filing out the chain’s doors for a taste at locations across the country, fed by social media fanaticism which experts now estimate a worth of $65 million equivalent media value. As fate would have it, by the time I got around to getting one two days later, they were sold out.

While I didn’t see this coming, industry experts sure did. “According to the National Restaurant Association 2019 State of the Industry Report, breaded chicken sandwiches were predicted to have the largest menu item growth in the QSR [quick-service restaurant] segment,” said Douglas Stuchel, associate professor in the College of Hospitality Management at Johnson & Wales University Providence.

Stuchel said that while Popeyes may have won the social media battle — “Popeye’s is using this event to create more followers on all of their social media outlets and to gain more app users” (the app will announce when and where more chicken sandwiches will be sold) — it stands to lose #TheChickenSandwichWar. “In today’s social-media-influenced food-and-beverage business environment when you have a Twitter war such as the one between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A and you win, you need to be prepared for overwhelming demand,” he says. “If you lose, be prepared for potential declining sales. The company states that they planned for aggressive sales through September. This may be too late with KFC’s launch of Beyond Fried Chicken and because consumers’ loyalty is very quick to change to what is new, bigger, better, etc.”

After all, the timeline from announcing on-sale to sell-out was only fourteen days. Hangry customers’ appetites will not likely last until the revival weeks from now. Stuchel offers this final advice: “Companies need to be prepared for success, and if they are not, it can be fleeting and lead to negative consumer reviews that can impact sales. Use the success to build your customer base and, more important, to gather information and data about the customers, both previously existing and new for promotion, product launch, and menu development.”

Amen.

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