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Marketing

Popeyes has already won the sandwich war

A Twitter battle involving several competitors gave the chain tons of free publicity for a new product that is vital to its future.
Photograph courtesy of Popeye's Chicken

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen introduced a new chicken sandwich earlier this month, which just about everybody not hidden under a rock knows already, thanks to the company’s social media skills.

The Atlanta-based chicken chain last week introduced its chicken sandwich to strong reviews. On Monday, fast-growing quick-service chain Chick-fil-A boasted about its sandwich, which prompted Popeyes to respond.

The tweet proved popular. And it ignited something of a Twitter war involving numerous chains, including Wendy’s and Shake Shack, all promoting their own chicken sandwiches.

Even non-chicken-chain &pizza jumped in with a tweet thread about its own visit to Popeyes, which perhaps unsurprisingly showed large crowds inside a restaurant, with many presumably seeking out that sandwich.

The result was a surge in Twitter mentions of Popeyes, according to financial services site Sentieo. Google searches for “Popeyes” and “chicken sandwich” both surged more than 1,000% this month, particularly over the past week.

All of this is fabulous news for Popeyes, which has enjoyed tons of virtually free advertising for a new product that is important to its future, generating interest in the sandwich without running a single ad.

Popeyes was one of the most consistently strong restaurant chains in the U.S. when Burger King owner Restaurant Brands International bought the company in 2017. Between 2010 and 2016, the chain averaged 4.3% quarterly same-store sales growth, results that turned a struggling regional concept into a national player.

Since then, however, the chain has struggled. Same-store sales have been slightly negative, on average, even with the 2.9% growth in the second quarter.

The company believes a chicken sandwich can improve those numbers considerably.

A popular hand-held chicken product is something of a holy grail for traditional bone-in chains like Popeyes.

Bone-in chicken doesn’t necessarily play well with the on-the-go consumer. It’s a particular challenge in the drive-thru because it’s tougher to eat on-the-bone chicken with one hand on the wheel. That has made Popeyes’ success between 2010 and 2016 all the more impressive.

Bone-in chains such as Popeyes and rival KFC have worked hard to bolster their boneless bona-fides in recent years to keep pace with trends and defend their turf from hard-charging Chick-fil-A.

“This is a big growth opportunity for Popeyes,” Popeyes President Felipe Athayde said in May. He noted that boneless products represented just 20% of the product mix at the time, and only 40% of its customers even knew the chain had chicken tenders on its menu.

“Servings of boneless chicken and breaded chicken sandwiches have been growing high single digits or low double digits every year, which makes them some of the fastest-growing product categories in QSR,” he said.

He said the company spent “a lot of time” testing its chicken sandwich before launching the product at stores in Texas. “We believe it’s the right product to close this menu gap,” Athayde said.

At least based on the results this week, the product is doing its job.

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