Why Popeyes Is Positioned to Be the Next Great Brand Marketer

The chicken chain is entering a new era

Popeyes' global marketing is now overseen by Fernando Machado, who continues to lead branding for sister chain Burger King. Getty Images
Headshot of David Griner

It’s been called the Great Chicken Sandwich Twitter War of 2019, but this week’s fast feud was just the opening battle.

Popeyes, a nearly 50-year-old fried chicken chain generally known both for its good food and spotty service, has long lagged behind global leader KFC in terms of size and behind Chick-fil-A in terms of customer experience. (KFC boasts about 4,000 U.S. locations, while Popeyes and Chick-fil-A each have about 2,400.)

So how did this sleepy brand, whose advertising has traditionally been regional and forgettable, suddenly explode onto the scene this week as a major marketing player?

While Popeyes’ longtime, loyal fans—especially within the culture-defining collective of Black Twitter—deserve much of the credit for turning the brand’s chicken sandwich launch into a viral phenomenon that has led to long lines and sold-out stores, the brand has also been positioning itself for just such a moment.

Fernando Machado, global CMO of Burger King, quietly began overseeing worldwide marketing for Popeyes earlier this year. Both are owned by Restaurant Brands International, which is also the parent company of Canadian doughnut chain Tim Hortons. “I haven’t even updated my LinkedIn,” Machado told Adweek with a laugh, “but from the beginning of this year, I became responsible for Popeyes too, so I have BK and Popeyes under my portfolio.”

Getting the BK band back together

In recent years, Machado has become one of the most iconic names in the marketing world, having led Burger King to a creative comeback not only rivaling but surpassing the brand’s storied era in the 2000s, when it partnered with Crispin Porter + Bogusky on campaigns like Subservient Chicken and Whopper Sacrifice. This year, thanks to far-reaching work like Whopper Detour, Burger King tallied a record 40 Cannes Lions and was named the festival’s first Creative Brand of the Year based on total awards.

Now Machado is also taking the wheel at Popeyes, but he’s not the only Burger King veteran coming on board.

Startup agency Gut, launched by the co-founder of Burger King creative agency David and now staffed with several David expats who previously worked on BK campaigns, is working on the global Popeyes account. Gut even led the creative strategy behind the high-profile chicken sandwich launch, which included a quirky partnership with a restaurant that had been caught secretly serving Popeyes chicken tenders.

“We brought Gut to the table to help challenge the way we think, help expand the boundaries of what’s possible, and to create more cool stuff,” Machado says.

Popeyes’ North American agency of record GSD&M remains with the brand, creating upcoming TV spots for the chicken sandwich and running the brand’s social feeds, which were key to the sandwich launch’s success.

Also joining the Popeyes team is Bruno Cardinali, the brand’s new head of marketing for North America. You’ll never guess where he was before this role. Yep, Burger King, where he was most recently head of marketing for Latin America and the Caribbean. But he and Machado go even further back, having worked together previously at Unilever.

Cardinali is working closely with Machado to define and clarify the brand’s voice and vision, while also tackling more tangible issues like the chain’s reputation for customer service that can generously be described as inconsistent.

“We really want to take the brand to the next level,” Cardinali says. “Communicating the strengths we have is important—the product quality, the range of products we offer—but also improving on the areas where we can improve. Customer service is certainly one of those.”

But despite all that the brand’s marketing team has done to start positioning itself for a new era as both a U.S. and global marketing leader, it still wasn’t ready for what happened this week.

The Popeyes chicken sandwich launch sparked an online scrum that, while mostly good natured in tone, snowballed until it seemed to have picked up just about every socially savvy brand on Twitter. (With KFC notably and curiously staying out of the fray altogether.)

It started when Popeyes (by way of its GSD&M-led Twitter feed) poked fun at Chick-fil-A, and soon brands like Wendy’s and even Boston Market were jumping into the melee.

“I don’t think we planned to start a chicken war,” Cardinali admits. “What we wanted to do was have fun and really leverage the great product we launched to get people to notice and talk about it. “

The power of Black Twitter

Popeyes may have created a popular new product and shown the digital moxie to spark the conversation, but when it comes to the viral explosion of the chicken sandwich wars, it’s clear who deserves the lion’s share of credit: Black Twitter.

Long known for its influence on everything from social justice to meme culture, Black Twitter is one of the network’s most active communities. Thanks to its concentration in urban areas and the South, Popeyes has long been a popular destination (and occasional butt of jokes) for many African Americans, and this connection became apparent as Black Twitter massively amplified awareness of the chicken sandwich launch while poking fun at competitors like Chick-fil-A (often seen as having a more white, suburban and conservative core fan base).

“Black Twitter absolutely contributed to the success of this launch by bringing the story of this sandwich to life on Twitter and beyond through the identity and tapestry of black culture,” said God-is Rivera, Twitter’s global director of culture and community. “The conversation was about the entire experience of searching for it, knowing how it tastes, taking photos and videos, and sharing reactions through hyperbole, jokes and memes that resonate with the culture.”

"There is a distinct possibility that, without the input from Black Twitter, Popeyes would have simply launched this sandwich with no fanfare and less notice from their competitors."
Gary Nix, marketing strategist

Brand strategist Gary Nix, founder of The BRANDarchist, says Black Twitter was a critical factor in the success of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich launch, turning it from yet another new fast food menu item into a phenomenon that The New Yorker described as a chicken sandwich “here to save America.”

“There is a distinct possibility that, without the input from Black Twitter, Popeyes would have simply launched this sandwich with no fanfare and less notice from their competitors,” Nix said. “However, a culture drew a certain coolness to this product—a coolness whose impact made that product market take notice. That is valuable to any business.”

To that point, Rivera warns that the kind of momentum that got behind Popeyes’ chicken sandwich launch isn’t something other brands should count on or try to tap into without a sincere connection to the community.

“I do want to caution that other brands can’t easily capture this lightning in a bottle,” she said. “Popeyes’ consistency of product, longstanding brand loyalty among this consumer group and national accessibility laid the foundation for this viral activity.”

The quest for world domination

Popeyes isn’t disclosing any sales figures around the new chicken sandwich, but marketing execs say it’s clearly surpassed all expectations, both in terms of publicity and revenue.

“It’s going super well. It’s above our expectations, but it’s just proving that the product is amazing,” Cardinali said. “We were prepared for the national launch. Of course we saw some restaurants running out of the product, but we’re working through the supply chain to make sure those restaurants don’t run out in the coming days.”

But the sandwich launch is clearly just one step on a much bigger journey for the brand, which is looking to challenge KFC’s poultry dominance in both the U.S. and overseas.

“The ambition is to grow this brand, not just in North America but also internationally,” Machado said. “We will do so by leveraging great products and creativity, which conceptually is a similar approach to what we did for BK. I believe creativity leads to a better outcome and better result. I can’t count on massively outrageous budgets, so I need creativity to be my dollar multiplier on everything we do.”

With the chicken sandwich debut, Popeyes showed the potency of his loyal fan base, but now the brand faces the challenge of building on that passion to win over millions of other consumers in marketers where Popeyes isn’t necessarily a household name.

“I want everyone to love the brand. I want to find a way to replicate the love our hardcore fans have, in scale,” Machado said. “We will get this brand into a rhythm. You will start seeing really cool stuff. Not like BK—it’s a different animal—but just as good in terms of creativity and generating impressions.”

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@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."