In 2019, AdAge named Popeye’s the Number 2 marketer of the Year. This was a big deal because the 50-year-old fast food chain typically trailed behind its competition in terms of size and customer experience however, in the summer of 2019, the brand exploded into an overnight viral sensation after the release of its fried chicken sandwich. The newfound popularity translated to sold out restaurants nationwide and a 42% increase in sales but the strategy behind the moment is even more extraordinary and the real success story.
Known to some as the “Great Chicken Sandwich Twitter War”, the buzz around Popeye’s new sandwich launch turned into a Twitter battle that immersed several brands and consumers into a debate about whose chicken sandwich ranked the highest. This epic social debate gained national attention from news outlets and took on a life of its own. God-is Rivera, the global director of culture and community at Twitter and several other social media strategists behind the Popeyes account give the credit to “Black Twitter”. According to Rivera, “It’s not just the platform, but who is on the platform…that group had outsized impact that literally launched and propelled the conversation to 2 million tweets and 3.3 billion impressions and I think that group is undeniably Black Twitter.” For those who are not familiar with “Black Twitter”, it is essentially a community largely consisting of black users across social networks (primarily Twitter) focused on issues of interest to the black community, particularly in the United States. This community of people largely consists of millennials and Gen-Z-ers and they engage on all aspects of life through the lens of black culture. “They’re able to discuss politics, pop culture, so many other topics daily through that lens of a very shared experience. And that experience so many times sets global trends around the world. And we’re seeing that today.” (1)
While Popeye’s brand certainly benefitted from the organic interest of black twitter users, the brand’s consistency of product, brand strategy and longstanding brand loyalty among the African American consumer group laid the foundation for this viral explosion. It is clear that the fast food brand had been collecting and processing data on this consumer segment and turning it into information that could help them make informed decisions when engaging with one of social media’s most active audiences. GSD&M, the agency that develops and manages Popeyes’ brand and social strategy says that the team has always paid attention to trends and what’s being said about the brand. Their strategy was to engage in relevant ways while also being mindful of the Popeye’s brand’s voice and remaining true and authentic to it. “We didn’t create this conversation; it was organically happening. What was happening was it was all the social media buzz, it was the mentions, it was the conversation, and they were really building this, all the topics and the narrative around this for us.” The perfect opportunity for Popeyes to officially join the growing chicken sandwich debate came when their biggest competitor in the chicken sandwich space, Chick-fil-A, appeared to “subtweet” the Popeyes brand by taking a dig at their new sandwich launch. Chick-fil-A that tweeted out a message reading, “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the ❤️ for the original,” which most believe suggested that Popeyes new sandwich copied their recipe.
In a pivotal moment, Popeyes took that as an opportunity to immediately send a tweet of its own “…Yall good?”, calling out Chick-fil-A in a subtle way and twitter and all of social media began to have a field day with what appeared to be a “clapback” – which is a phrase coined by Black twitter users. Brands pay and strategize for this level of engagement but the Popeyes brand had been positioning itself for just such a moment by making sure that the brand kept up on a cultural level. The brand made a meaningful decision based on their informed knowledge about how engaging with Black Twitter authentically and it paid off in a major way.
Angela Brown, a social strategist at GSD&M and one of the brains behind the viral tweet explained “What I tend to do, is bring in anything we see happening online, any trends that are happening, anything within culture in general and then Black culture, specifically, that we see is really doing well and could work for the brand”. Black Twitter brought the debate to life with photos and videos, and sharing reactions through hyperbole, jokes and memes that resonated with the culture and became the explosive moment that we know today. Although this segment is credited for it’s impact on the launches success, I call it the secret sauce because there is no way for a brand to replicate this strategy. Any brand that tries could appear cheesy and be met with accusations of cultural appropriation. Popeyes’ strategy was a balancing act between knowledge of this loyal audience, staying true to their brand voice and more importantly making sure that the people the brand is hoping to connect with were represented in the brand’s team (i.e. black consumers, millennials etc.). The individuals behind Popeyes’s brilliant response include black millennials who are familiar with how to reach this audience and you don’t get these moments without people in the room who look like the communities you want to speak to.
… y’all good? https://t.co/lPaTFXfnyP
— Popeyes Chicken (@PopeyesChicken) August 19, 2019
- What are other brands that have organically and strategically benefitted from the AfAm consumer segment? Or another?
- Is it possible for brands to use the data and information they have on customer segments to successfully get ahead of viral moments?
- What is the best way for brands to capitalize off of viral moments for longer periods of time?
- In what ways do you think letting a viral moment drive the brand strategy could have backfired?
- How Black Twitter Turned the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Into a Viral Phenomenon. Diana Pearl. AdWeek. https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/how-twitter-turned-popeyes-chicken-sandwich-into-viral-phenomenon/
- Popeyes sales up 42% thanks to chicken sandwich. Chis Morris. Fotune. https://fortune.com/2020/02/10/popeyes-chicken-sandwich-sales-q4/#:~:text=Sales%20at%20Popeyes%20restaurants%20were,of%20the%20chain’s%20chicken%20sandwich.
- Why Popeyes Is Positioned to Be the Next Great Brand Marketer. David Griner. AdWeek. https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/why-popeyes-is-positioned-to-be-the-next-great-brand-marketer/
- Popeyes turned 2019 into the year of the fried chicken sandwich. Jessica Wohl. AdAge. https://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/marketers-year-no-2-popeyes/2221136
- Imagery: Giphy, Businessinsider.com, Youtube