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What Popeyes’ Chicken Sandwich Teaches Us About Product Launches

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Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen’s summer release of its new chicken sandwich is a case study in how a perfectly timed product can transform a consumer brand.  

It’s back again, y’all. 

The chicken sandwich from Popeyes, which created a national sensation this summer, returned to the fried chicken fast-food chain in November.  

By most estimates, Popeyes’ sales are just as brisk as when the sandwich debuted for a two-week period in August. It’s a shining example of how a blend of clever marketing, perfect timing, and a dedicated approach to product quality can transform a company’s trajectory—within just a few weeks. 

What can other businesses glean from Popeyes’ successful launch of a chicken sandwich? Here are four lessons we’ve learned:

1. Timing is crucial 

The re-release of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich took place, appropriately, on National Sandwich Day.

“Y’all…it’s Sunday.” Popeyes tweeted on Nov. 3, along with a video of a buttery bun barely holding an oversized crispy chicken breast.  

Was it a coincidence that Popeyes brought back its chicken sandwich on a Sunday—when chief rival Chick-fil-A is famously closed?

Please.

Chick-fil-A already committed a public relations blunder by promoting National Sandwich Day, which fell on a Sunday this year. Popeyes turned that fumble into a score with the relaunch of its own sandwich.

It was another win for a 47-year-old restaurant chain fighting to gain ground in a hotly contested fast-food chicken market that includes KFC, Church’s and, of course, Chick-fil-A. Popeyes’ owner, Restaurant Brands International, reported that the fried chicken chain had sales growth of 10% in the third quarter—among its best quarters in two decades—thanks to the chicken sandwich promotion.

The August launch was planned to last a month, but Popeyes ran out of sandwiches in little more than two weeks. That shortage fueled a consumer frenzy that the restaurant expertly stoked until the re-launch in November. This time, Popeyes has promised that the chicken sandwich is here to stay.

Let’s hope that’s the case, because the nation has apparently suffered enough.

2. Product quality takes time and commitment

On the surface, there’s nothing new and particularly exciting about a chicken sandwich. It’s not groundbreaking. It’s not thinking outside the box. In addition to Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and other fast-food titans offer a crispy chicken sandwich. It’s a crowded field.

But not everyone makes a great chicken sandwich, which is what Popeyes set out to do in 2016. Chefs in the company’s Miami test kitchen developed a new chicken recipe with buttermilk batter and a special flour to make the meat’s fried coating extra crunchy. The sandwich bun was lathered with the same buttery topping used on biscuits. Its pickles were larger cuts than those on Chick-fil-A’s classic sandwich.

Then, Popeyes trained staff throughout its 2,500 restaurants on how to make the new concoction. Gaining that consistency company-wide was critical to the sandwich’s success, Amy Alcaron, Popeyes’ vice president of culinary innovation, told Thrillist in a recent interview.

“It’s about getting into the restaurant and getting the operations nailed down, making sure we can execute it,” she said. “That actually is the part we were really serious about.”

This was not Popeyes’ first attempt at a chicken sandwich. But it was the first time the fast-food chain attempted to create a chicken sandwich that would be a marquee menu item.

By using what it already knew about fried chicken, consumer testing and product development, Popeyes came up with a fresh take on an old classic, proving that you don’t have to stray too far from your capabilities and brand to deliver something innovative. 

3. Go big on social media

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this era of presidential tweets, it’s that brands—political and otherwise—don’t rely on traditional forms of advertising to get the word out.

Apex Marketing Group estimated that Popeyes generated $65 million in free PR and advertising from the launch of its chicken sandwich in August.

Much of that started with paid and organic social media, especially on Twitter. 

One week into the launch, Popeyes challenged Chick-fil-A on Twitter over which restaurant had the best chicken sandwich. Thousands of Twitter followers quickly weighed in with their opinions. Then, Wendy’s, Zaxby’s and Church’s got in on the act.

The Twitter war started a sensation. There were long lines outside Popeyes locations across the country for the new sandwich. Someone tried to sell one for $7,000 on eBay. Local and national media began reporting the story, and Popeyes announced on August 27—little more than two weeks into the special offer—that it had sold out of chicken sandwiches nationwide.

That’s the kind of grassroots publicity money can’t buy. It’s helped fuel Popeyes’ successful November relaunch, which has been marked by more long waits, celebrity tweets and occasional arguments among ravenous diners.

Restaurant chains have discovered the power of social media in recent years, with brands like Wendy’s, Burger King, and IHOP adopting humorous voices and interacting one-on-one with consumers. In mocking Chick-fil-A’s sandwich, Popeyes was able to galvanize the market leader’s massive Twitter following and spark a social media sensation.  

Restaurant chains and other food brands caught onto to the power of social media earlier than other industries. Wendy’s snarky Twitter feed and IHOP’s temporary brand change to IHOb (International House of Burgers) are two examples of social media ingenuity. 

“Brands are very much used to one-way communication, right? We create an ad, a perfectly varnished ad, we put it up on the television, and we hope the consumer consumes it,” Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, recently told Delish.com. “Social media is not like that. People are expecting more interaction, a little bit of a back and forth. A different tone, certainly.”

4. Engage your competition head-on

For more than a decade, Chick-fil-A has basically owned the chicken sandwich on a national level. According to QSR Magazine, the Atlanta-based company is the nation’s eighth most lucrative fast-food chain, with over 1,800 restaurants and annual U.S. sales of $9 billion.

Popeyes weighs in at #19 on that list, with more locations but revenue of $3.2 billion.

When most U.S. consumers think “chicken sandwich,” they envision Chick-fil-A, sandwich board-wearing cows and their phonetic approach to spelling.

Why would Popeyes try to compete against America’s favorite chicken sandwich?

The best answer may be that Popeyes is capitalizing on a national trend. For the first half of 2019, chicken sandwich sales at fast-food chains increased 3.3%, while overall sales of hamburgers declined slightly, according to research firm NPD Group. Of course, this was all before Popeyes’ new sandwich hit the market.  

While investing three years into a new chicken sandwich and taunting Chick-fil-A on social media had their risks, they enabled Popeyes to engage with a larger audience.

The benefits were immediate. An analyst for KeyBanc Capital Markets estimates Popeyes sold an average of 1,000 chicken sandwiches a day at each of its stores, boosting total sales by 30% during that two-week time period.

Many of those customers had never been inside a Popeyes restaurant before. The launch’s success exceeded everyone’s projections, and the overall popularity of the fast-food chicken sandwich—triggered more than a decade ago by Chick-fil-A—had a lot to do with that. 

The bottom line

Popeyes’ successful launch and re-launch of its chicken sandwich shows how you don’t have to invent something entirely new to be innovative. A clever blend of strategic social media marketing—and a willingness to take on all comers in the chicken sandwich game—helped elevate Popeyes’ brand in just a fortnight.

Most importantly, the popularity of fast-food chicken sandwiches was already stoked, allowing Popeyes to tap into a fanbase already nurtured by its competitors.

As Walt Disney once said, “I have been up against tough competition my whole life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it. 

Popeyes can relate, y’all.

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