Lessons from Popeye’s and the “Chicken Sandwich Wars”

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner

Popeye’s seems to be experiencing the ultimate brand dream – a record-breaking product debut, selling out their initial inventory weeks earlier than the company had predicted even in their most aggressive forecasts. However, the craze has reached a breaking point. People are so hungry for Popeye’s new chicken sandwich that some have staged full-blown riots over it, as if it was a TV marked 75% off on Black Friday.

This is not so dissimilar to what McDonald’s went through with their Szechuan dipping sauce in 2017, when they responded to consumer demand for a discontinued item that was featured on the popular Adult Swim show Rick and Morty. McDonald’s initially brought the sauce back for one day in extremely limited quantities, only to face enormous backlash and negative sentiment from fans who had overwhelmed locations and were unable to get a sample. Folks waited in long lines immediately upon store opening, and some even paid top-dollar (including a $15,000 eBay bid) for just one packet of sauce.

History has repeated itself with Popeye’s, although there is a point to be made that the chain’s inability to predict demand is far more understandable than McDonald’s. After all, nobody can anticipate a viral sensation, but McDonald’s sauce revival was only in response to extreme Twitter fervor in the first place.


Two Little Words

When Popeye’s announced their new chicken sandwich – a fried chicken breast, pickles, mayo, and a buttered bun – rival chicken chain Chick-fil-A playfully (and publically) took offense, boasting that theirs was “the original”. After an emergency meeting on August 19th, Popeye’s marketing executives had crafted and tweeted out a simple response that would ignite a full-blown Chicken Sandwich War: “…y’all good?”

Those two little words catapulted the exchange into viral status, spurring thousands of curious memers to seek out the new sandwich and weigh in on the battle themselves. Within just two weeks, the sandwich was completely sold out – Chick-fil-A had inadvertently given Popeye’s their biggest marketing push to date. Soon after selling out, the most extreme stories from the front lines began rolling in – frustrated customers wielding guns at terrified workers, employees laboring over hot fryers for 12-hour-long shifts to fulfill the sudden boom in orders – and suddenly, the whole narrative began shifting from a funny and enviable Internet anecdote to something considerably darker.

So after all of this, what can brands learn from Popeye’s whirlwind experience?


  • Employee welfare and customer satisfaction should come before the bottom line


In the age of social media, a negative post can change the tone of a story just as quickly as it creates it. While Popeye’s is probably delighted that social media users have earned the brand so much free publicity, the conversation has grown to encompass themes of race, class, workers’ rights, and consumerism that Popeye’s likely never wanted to be a part of. And at this point, it’s mostly out of their hands.

The welfare of employees and the happiness of the consumer should be prioritized above profits. While it would be tempting for any company to try to take advantage of newfound Internet stardom, these deeper and more controversial conversations have far longer-lasting and farther-reaching implications for the way that the public views the brand. In 2019, safety, convenience, and the treatment of workers are now all equally as important as having a beloved product.


  • Nobody can predict a viral sensation, but you can be prepared for one


Given that Popeye’s wasn’t even directly responsible for the initial Tweet that kicked off this whole fiasco, you can hardly say that they are entirely accountable for what’s happened. However, now that we’ve seen this sort of situation play out multiple times, brands can take notice of certain behaviors and strategies to mitigate the situation:

-Once it’s apparent that a product has gone viral, be very, very transparent about the quantities available. If it’s positioned as being something very exclusive and rare, brands can immediately incorporate that into the way that the product is marketed. Additionally, consumers then have a better idea of what to expect – they may be disappointed if they are unable to get a product, but are less likely to be outraged and feel cheated or disrespected.

-Employees on the floor are on the front lines with consumers, so give them the tools to handle this new demand. It’s not out of the question for companies to develop action plans for sudden, dramatic spikes in purchasing. How should employees speak with frustrated customers? Do they have the resources that they need to handle the additional physical and emotional stress? Do they feel protected in the event of a big, unexpected crowd? For CPG companies, this can even be applied to your relationship with the retailer. It’s not a bad idea to have a plan in place to offer what additional support to the retailer you are able to provide.

-Be sure that your forecasts are as accurate as possible. As we mentioned with McDonald’s, the chain received a ton of criticism for failing to understand the magnitude of demand when they reintroduced their Szechuan sauce. When dealing with something that’s gone viral, forecasting based on social media trends is a completely different beast than forecasting based on standard sales trends. Social media is constantly evolving, so brand marketers should be sure that their teams are constantly up-to-date on the language, attitudes, and, yes, even the memes of the moment.


  • Social media “clapbacks” are a difficult game, with outcomes ranging from public humiliation to unprecedented viral fame


Nowadays, it’s common for large brands to engage in exactly the kind of snarky back-and-forth exchanges (usually called “clapbacks”) that Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s were involved in. However, public response can vary wildly, even among exchanges that seem very similar on the surface. Sometimes, the responses point to an exhausted attitude towards the way that brands conduct themselves online, as users express that they’re tired of seeing blatant attempts at demonstrating a brand’s personality. This usually happens when posts seem disingenuous, or otherwise desperately hungry for clout.

On the other hand, you’ve got the Popeye’s of the world, who find themselves (at least initially) on the receiving end of waves of shockingly positive sentiment. Their two-word clapback paid off magnificently, resulting in folks clamoring for their product in a way that went beyond any marketer’s wildest dreams. Although, it is important to remember that there was another company on the other end of that exchange. While Chick-fil-A earned themselves a place in the national conversation (by far, not their most controversial reason for cultural relevance) and might have seen some sales growth as a response, most of the benefits of their Twitter beef went to their rival. They gave that away, for free.

While viral sensations like Popeye’s sandwich are a relatively new phenomenon for marketers to navigate, we have seen enough of them to impart key lessons. While any brand hopes to go viral (provided that it’s for positive reasons), it’s important to know how to handle the situation so that it continues to develop in the brand’s favor. If managed in a sloppy way, the conversation can spin out of control, and the brand can completely lose control of the conversation. If managed well, it can become a case study in taming the social media monster – and that kind of skill is worth every chicken sandwich in the world.


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