The Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich Phenomenon

The Not-So-Soft Soft Launch

Popeyes first launched their now famous fried chicken sandwich on Monday, August 12th of 2019. By Tuesday, they had to announce that the sandwich would be sold out at its U.S. restaurants by the end of the week. One of the two ad agencies that were the brains behind their marketing, GSD&M, had to create an alternate campaign to align with a shortage of the product. To say the least, the release of the sandwich was a huge success for Popeyes. In fact, launching the sandwich resulted in their largest growth in the last 20 years. The question is, why? Popeyes did not invent the fried chicken sandwich, but they did do everything right in both producing it and promoting it. They knew who to work with to make them stand out, and looking at their success is a clear reminder of one very valuable lesson: Marketing. Is. Everything.

Popeyes Chicken Sandwich is Back

Which Came First...?

So where and when did Popeyes become the name on top in the chicken market anyway? Oddly enough, a long while before the release of the sandwich. Back in 2017 a mini media storm started around a restaurant in Long Beach, California, called Sweet Dixie Kitchen. Sadly Sweet Dixie has since closed due to said media frenzy around her choices in chicken (or just changed the name, it’s a bit of a culinary mystery), but at the time the restaurant was serving up Popeyes on their waffles. A couple of regulars leaked the news when they saw owner Kimberly Sanchez smuggling boxes of Popeyes into the kitchen one day. And while they may not have favored her choices, Kimberly stood strong by her decision to put that Popeyes on her plate, stating that she believed in seeking out and serving from the best purveyors, and for her, Popeyes fried chicken was at the top of her list. That is, until the backlash became too much from media coverage around the country. The hashtag #popeyesgate went viral on twitter and the negative vibes from angry customers were not what Sanchez wanted on her menu, so she begrudgingly decided to pull the chicken from the menu. That is, until…

Sweet Dixie Chicken

No Such Thing As Bad Press

A couple of years later, things took another wonderful turn in this budding media movement around, yes, still chicken. When Popeyes went to launch their sandwich in 2019, they decided, with the help of the marketing team at Gut, to use the popularity of what had happened years previous at Sweet Dixie, by selling the sandwich exclusively in the restaurant for the first two days of the launch. All around Orange County, Popeyes locations had signs saying that the new sandwich was not available in their locations “yet” and pointed customers to head to Dixie’s for the next two days. This, in turn, began to build anticipation for consumers leading up to the launch of the sandwich in stores, but was it the thing that really made the sandwich so popular?

"Bun + Chicken + Pickles = Love."

That was the famous tweet from Chick-fil-A, the country’s previous leader in chicken, which went out seven days after Popeyes dropped its new sandwich into the hands of hungry customers. And GSD&M (reminder, the other of the two marketing agencies with whom they worked) was prepared for the moment. They had met with Popeyes earlier in the year to discuss a plan-of-response, which they called a “Code Orange Chat.” Within fifteen minutes of Chick-fil-A posting their tweet, the team roundtabled by text, and Popeyes (via DSD&M) responded “y’all good?” The response gave a wink to the controversy with Chick-fil-A in previous years, concerning their anti-LGTBQ stance. This was also the moment that began the much clucked about (sorry) chicken wars, and according to AdAge, between August 12th when the sandwich was released and August 31st, there was one tweet per second focused around Popeyes. The wars only got better from there, with another stellar response from Popeyes when Wendy’s tried to join in on the chicken convo. There was decidedly no holding back from Popeyes and their marketing teams, as they took on a bold, confident, and concise tone, calling Wendy’s “thirsty” in response to their tweet. Well, this worked. The sandwiches ran out so quickly that Popeyes had to take them off-menu and do a relaunch a couple of months later in November. Fittingly, they launched on National Sandwich Day, which was November 3rd. Chick-fil-A also decided to create a campaign on that day, sending out an email which urged customers to get a sandwich in honor of the holiday. Turns out November 3rd was a Sunday, and Chick-fil-A isn’t open on Sundays. All of this led Popeyes to reach out again to their chicken rival with a second tweet: “Seriously, y’all good?”

The Good, The Bad, The Creative

Popeyes began to be talked about across all platforms and genres nonstop, including Saturday Night Live, when they aired a sketch featuring Harry Styles entitled “Lunch Run.” All of this witty banter of course, is in good jest (and genius planning), but no actual harm or hurt was ever the intention of these responses. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the same for some customers who were trying to acquire a sandwich, when they were confronted with a shortage of the much wanted white meat. The chicken sandwich was so desired that it did in some instances cause actual physical altercations, and there were some very unfortunate real-life chicken sandwich wars. On a happier marketing note, another not-to-be-missed campaign from the creative genius of GSD&M is the “Emotional Support Chicken” available to travelers in the Philadelphia airport.

Emotional Support Chicken

In The Twitterverse, Does Flavor Even Matter?

Turns out, yes it very much matters. Even with the brilliant marketing done by both agencies, the customer (aka, twitter) response was one of the leading factors in moving things beyond the initial stages of success for this bird, because everyone thought it was truly, exceptionally good. And, since they thought it was so good, of course they had to tweet about it. And who tweets more than millenials and Gen Xers? Absolutely no one. Forbes reported that these two demographics made up two-thirds of sandwich buyers. Previous to the sandwich, Popeyes’ most loyal eaters were Boomers, making up 42% of their customer base. All of those millennial and Gen X tweets added up to the popular opinion that the sandwich was actually the best in the world. To back this up, Popeyes’ head of culinary innovation, Amy Alarcon, says she felt like the previous iterations of the sandwich hadn’t been done right. When creating the new phenomenon, she wouldn’t compromise on a couple of key factors: a brioche bun (buttered before toasted), Chipico pickles, and Blue Plate mayo. Amy, the country thanks you for your convictions. But it won’t end there, as Popeyes has already stated that they have international plans ahead for their brioche bunned bird.

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