Chick-Fil-A's Sandwich War vs. Popeyes: A Mistake Or A Strategy?

Marketing experts say that while Chick-fil-A may not have wanted to boost Popeyes' sales, "they created a lot of exposure for themselves, too."

Over the past week, Popeyes has trended on Twitter globally, welcomed expansive crowds and sold out of just about every new chicken sandwich it has. But why is this particular sandwich such a big deal?

The viral success is unprecedented for America’s 19th largest fast-food chain, and it’s in large part thanks to a competitor nearly triple its size: Chick-fil-A.

Interest surrounding Popeyes’ chicken sandwich was only gaining light interest when the fried-chicken chain announced the new menu item on Aug. 12. The sandwich promised to excite fans with “barrel-cured pickles, a buttery toasted brioche bun, creamy mayo and buttermilk battered and hand-breaded chicken filet,” Bruno Cardinali, Popeyes’ head of marketing for North America, told HuffPost.

But excitement began building Aug. 19, when Chick-fil-A tweeted its way into the conversation, reminding its 1.1 million followers that “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the ❤️ for the original.”

Popeyes responded with “… y’all good?” and the chicken sandwich wars had officially begun. So, too, had Popeyes’ sales.

“It all started with the high quality of our new chicken sandwich that we launched on Aug. 12; we saw a major boost in organic conversations, and we felt it made sense to jump in and participate,” Cardinali explained. “After one of our tweets last Monday, we saw another huge spike in conversation about the sandwich.” For a time, the sandwich competition was the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. and worldwide, he said.

It just so happens that the buzz was largely spurred by Chick-fil-A’s tweet, which gently launched the Twitter war.

Popeyes said it introduced its new chicken sandwich to meet existing customer demand, but the social media conversation has been bringing hordes of new faces through the fast-food chain’s doors.

Google searches for “Popeyes chicken sandwich” grew almost 1,000% following the Aug. 19 tweets, according to Google Trends. Many Popeyes restaurants subsequently sold out of the sandwich. Lines reached 45 minutes over the weekend in some places. Some towns may even nix the sandwich, because long Popeyes lines are contributing to traffic crashes.

One curious new customer, Chris Doyle, waited 20 minutes to get his hands on the scarce sandwich in Broomfield, Colorado. He lucked out. Popeyes stopped selling it minutes after he ordered.

“The Chick-fil-A versus Popeyes debate on social media sparked our curiosity,” Doyle said. “I got both the classic and spicy sandwiches. I liked the classic better than the spicy, but both lived up to the hype. Every table was packed.”

Longtime Popeyes franchisee Joseph Haberkorn Jr. said the social media froth is bringing record crowds to his Chicago restaurant.

“We’ve had lines out the door with guests clamoring for the new chicken sandwich,” Haberkorn said. “This weekend consisted of guests lining up all day, from open to close. In my 38 years as a Popeyes franchisee, I’ve never seen a product create such a frenzy.”

A viral sandwich. Unprecedented sales. The No. 1 trending topic on Twitter. By helping start this frenzy, did Chick-fil-A royally screw up?

The new Popeyes chicken sandwich has created such a stir that the chain's long lines have created traffic incidents.
The new Popeyes chicken sandwich has created such a stir that the chain's long lines have created traffic incidents.

Renowned marketing expert and author Jay Baer thinks not.

“Chick-fil-A is much bigger than Popeyes,” Baer pointed out. “While I suspect they aren’t super happy about giving Popeyes oxygen on this launch, by mixing it up on Twitter they created a lot of exposure for themselves, too. If anything, Chick-fil-A’s customers are even more loyal, and any conversation [about] ‘which is a better sandwich’ gives Chick-fil-A more mindshare, especially because there’s no question that Popeyes is the imitator, in this case.”

Now that Wendy’s and several other fast-food chains have joined in on the sandwich wars, the opinionated Twitterverse can’t get enough. Chick-fil-A may have started the battle, but Nicole Ronchetti, chief strategist at digital marketing agency Revolution Digital, said Popeyes won the social media war ― thanks to loyal fans.

“This story is less about Popeyes social media team and more about the loyal ambassadors the brand has,” Ronchetti said. “While not one of the traditional fast-food restaurants when you think about restaurant wars, Popeyes has always had a cult following. The brand loyalists are the people leading the charge on social. Popeyes’ social team had some well-timed tweets to continue to add fuel to the fire.”

Taste-test enthusiasts like Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports are now releasing their blindfold take on which chicken sandwich is better. For many customers, though, taste is only part of the equation.

Chick-fil-A is a longtime supporter of anti-LGBTQ organizations, which is one reason chicken sandwich-lovers like Doyle boycott the Atlanta-based chain.

I love fast-casual food, but have been reluctant to support Chick-fil-A because their political views on the LGBT community are incongruent with my personal beliefs,” Doyle said. “Once we heard the rumor that Popeyes was offering a superior alternative to Chick-fil-A, we had to decide for ourselves.”

With 26 years of marketing experience, Baer has seen a lot of viral trends, but the chicken chatter definitely has his attention. In fact, Baer and his son are plotting a road trip to the closest Popeyes so they can try this buzzy sandwich.

“The amount of conversation this is creating is astonishing because ― and let’s not lose sight of this ― it’s just a chicken sandwich!” Baer said. “It helps that fast-food brands are currently in a place where they are willing to become combatants on social media. And it of course helps that the sandwich is very good.”

So good, in fact, that celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse had to join the #ChickenSandwichWars conversation. He told HuffPost the Popeyes product gets a big thumbs up.

“I’ve been a fan of Popeyes since I moved to New Orleans 30 years ago,” Lagasse said. “I have to say this new chicken sandwich is scrumptious, it’s delicious.”

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