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When Lunch is a Social Sensation, There Are Big Lessons For Marketers

Update: Popeyes announced yesterday that the chicken sandwich will be sold out nationwide by the end of this week.

The internet broke last week because of a chicken sandwich.

There were other things in the news cycle, of course: the burning Amazon, the fluctuating markets, and G7. But Popeyes released a new fried chicken sandwich, and consumers are taking sides and digging in their heels.

The long-standing fried chicken contenders, Wendy’s and Chick-Fil-A, have had to step up their game to compete with the newcomer that has threatened their domain. There hasn’t been this much discussion about territorial drama since HBO’s hit series “The Wire” premiered more than a dozen years ago.

The story here is threefold:

  • One part is the product,
  • Another part is the message, and
  • The last is the customer journey.

Marketers, take note. Popeye’s was able to generate the equivalent of $23 million worth of advertising — without spending a dime.

“This is an amazing example of how a brand can get enormous traction in a crowded market by learning what their audience is interested in, what they like to have, and how to leverage data during the content and product creation. Combine all of those things with great execution on social media – the world’s town square to discover brand’s products – and you get a spotlight on their campaign which enjoyed lots of attention,” Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CEO of SocialBakers, told us.

A significant component of the Popeyes chicken sandwich going viral was Black Twitter, who raised the profile of the hit sandwich by stating that they had known about the quality of the fried chicken first. When a group of anchors tried the now-infamous chicken sandwich, a black anchor ribbed his colleague: “does this taste like a neighborhood you’ve never been to?” And Twitter did the rest.

The product

The product is simple. (Yes, I’ve eaten it.) It’s a large piece of breaded and fried chicken breast, with pickles underneath, on a bun, with a bit of sauce. There are no lettuce or tomatoes, which is troubling. A fried chicken sandwich with just bread and chicken has a chewy texture, and lettuce’s crunchiness offsets this. It seems like such a small thing, but a little bit of iceberg really does go a long way. It seems like a throwaway lettuce, but iceberg really does go well with fast food.

This perception matched my experience of the Popeye’s chicken sandwich, detailed in the next section.

The experience

I ordered a chicken sandwich on Uber Eats on Wednesday night — and the delivery person was hit by a car. Sad but true. I never received my sandwich, which only fueled my imaginative brain as to what could have happened to it (was it eaten?) Thankfully, I was able to successfully order another sandwich two days later.

The sandwich is a generous sized one, bigger than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Chick-Fil-A, which is good. The pickles are a great touch, but no lettuce meant the sandwich was chewy. The chicken was well seasoned and the bun was ample enough to contain it.

Chris and Marjorie on the trail of the Popeyes sandwich

The message

The success of the chicken sandwich seems to have been double edged. On one hand, it blew up in a way that every marketer dreams of: bubbling up in one or two places and then suddenly going viral. It’s a classic American story. One day it’s released, and the next it is everywhere. On the other, so many people complained about the customer service getting the sandwich I began to wonder if it was real. I mean, had anyone seen the chicken sandwich in person at that stage?

I became aware the chicken sandwich was a thing when I saw someone on Twitter claim that a Seamless driver failed to deliver it and wasn’t answering the phone. Then I saw dozens of tweets detailing the experience it seemed hard to find. A couple of people claimed that this sort of thing was happening to them, too – chicken sandwiches being eaten on the delivery route.

The beef (yes, beef)

Ironically, it was competitor Chick-Fil-A which gave the Popeyes sandwich a social boost. The tweet: 

A little rand assertiveness never did any harm, right? The original must be a selling point surely?

Wrong. Popeyes had a simple but perfect clapback

Scoreboard: Chick-Fil-A 22.8K likes, Popeyes 324K and counting. Talk about being ratioed.

The takeaway

Obviously, this viral response can’t and won’t happen every time. But marketers can and should learn the lesson from this viral sensation that is converting into restaurants running out of sandwiches. The tools you need for brand recognition may already be in your toolbox.

If you can find a way to pair brand recognition with great customer service while expending minimal resources, that is the ideal way to do things. Here are some tips to help you begin brainstorming.

Take stock: Which channel works best for your brand’s voice? Is it social media? Is it email? Where are you having the most impact? This can give you an idea where you can position your message.

Interact and Diversify: You don’t need to only talk about your brand. It’s perfectly fine to discuss other things, too. People want to interact with their brands like they do with people, and people don’t talk about just one thing’. And don’t be afraid to subtweet or poke a little harmless fun once in a while

Be Relevant:  
As with most things in life, timing is everything.

Also, it helps to be selling a fried chicken sandwich.

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