How Popeyes’ New Global CMO Plans to Make the Niche Brand Into a Mass Brand

Paloma Azulay on building a strong brand beyond a strong product

Before joining Restaurant Brands International—Popeyes and Tim Hortons parent company—Paloma Azulay spent 14 years at Coca-Cola. Popeyes

Key insights:

Paloma Azulay was quietly appointed Popeyes global chief marketing officer in January, and stepped into the role last month. Prior to that, she was global CMO for another of Restaurant Brands International’s iconic chains: Tim Hortons, the beloved Canada-based coffee-centric fast-food chain.

In her relatively new role, Azulay is reporting directly to Fernando Machado, who heads marketing for all three of RBI’s brands: Popeyes, Tim Hortons and Burger King.

Azulay brings to RBI 14 years of experience with Coca-Cola, for which she worked in her native Brazil and Europe. Now, she’s working to expand Popeyes’ presence in markets around the globe.

Adweek spoke with Azulay to discuss where she sees the brand headed in a post-chicken sandwich wars world, and how she hopes to expand Popeyes’ reach—without losing the authenticity responsible for the hype.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: What did you learn from your time at Tim Hortons that you hope to bring to Popeyes?
Paloma Azulay: Working at Tim Hortons was a big privilege. There and at Coca-Cola, which was also an iconic, established brand, I think you learn the importance of building a strong brand beyond the strong product. And I think that is a basic principle of marketing. But it’s interesting to see the legacy that Tim Hortons had with the Canadian community—the fact that the brand had very clear brand values that word like a mirror to Canadian values. And these made a very strong connection with millions of Canadians that go to things every day and they love the brand. It’s a relationship that’s really a love affair. It’s very emotional.

Popeyes has hardcore fans, but it’s still No. 3 in the market in the U.S. What Popeyes has to do now is build a strong brand beyond the super strong products that we already have. And to do that, it will take some work for us in terms of refining the brand positioning and understanding how we’re going to connect with our communities. We had this amazing hype for the sandwich last year, but when you look at the brand in the long term there is not a lot of association and loyalty in terms of having a large base of people that come to us frequently.

There are brands and then there are iconic brands. What makes a brand iconic is when it becomes part of the pop culture, and I think Popeyes is just scratching the surface in this regard. We have an authentic story to tell, we have a very clear heritage, and a very interesting and rich history coming from Louisiana. Now we need to articulate the story to the world in a way that’s relevant for today’s times. And that makes a brand that today’s very nice for say a brand for everyone and appealing for everyone.

Popeye’s just hired Gut over GSD&M, a longtime agency partner. Going forward, will Gut lead all Popeyes global marketing or will you have a bigger roster of partner agencies the way that Burger King does?
Today we have a mix. Gut is our lead creative agency for the U.S. market. Since Popeyes is still small around the world, we’re still building the basic awareness and attraction for the brand. But the idea is to have Gut as the major creative lead but still leverage local talent, which I believe is super important to help us localize and translate the brand in different countries.

"So we are right now revisiting the brand strategy, the brand positioning, to be able to articulate something that is very meaningful that goes beyond beyond a hype. ... We want to be a brand that is part of the everyday life of Americans and of people around the world."
Paloma Azulay, global CMO, Popeyes

Where do you see the most global growth potential for Popeyes?
China is a market that we are keeping an eye on very closely—we are going to open there very soon. It’s a market that KFC already developed, and there is a huge passion for fried chicken. I’m sure they will love our products and I’m very excited about the journey of getting the Popeyes brand in a market that is so different from the U.S.—to bring the heritage of the brand but also localizing it. It’s a very interesting challenge.

Brazil is also another market that we opened last year, and we’ll soon launch the chicken sandwich there. There is a massive opportunity. I’m originally from Brazil, so I see that there is a lot of natural fit with the Louisiana story and the Brazilian cultural landscape that we’ll be able to develop.

How does it feel to be stepping into a role that was previously held—if temporarily—by a marketer as celebrated as Fernando Machado?
I couldn’t be more honored to learn from him. I’ve always admired his work. Actually, I decided to come from Coca-Cola to Tim Hortons because I wanted to learn from Fernando, to work in the creative culture that he built. So for me it’s really an honor to report to him today and to be able to learn from everything that he did at Unilever and Burger King and work as one team to bring that to Popeyes.

What will the relationship look like between you, as Popeyes global CMO, and Bruno Cardinali, as head of marketing for North America?
Bruno and I work super closely together because as we expand the brand, the U.S. is still our home market. So Bruno and I work together on a lot of projects. He’s also an amazing marketer that I love to watch and learn from. The work he did last year with the chicken sandwich launch, I mean, it’s super impressive.

So there are projects that we share that we work together that really impact the long term of the brand. For example, we’re really ramping up the sustainability agenda for Popeyes—this is something that I personally believe in a lot. I think the brand has a huge opportunity to keep elevating the product not only to have an amazing taste, but making people feel good about our chicken from an environmental and nutritional perspective as well.

What can marketing do to help the brand, its customers and employees during the coronavirus pandemic?
We are monitoring every market’s unique situation because on a global level, we have all types of stages. In China, for example, they’re prepping for the Popeyes launch that will happen soon. Popeyes was in the news in the Chinese broadcast there as a sign of the recovery of the economy. So you’re coming back to normal life there.

But in Spain, which is a super important market for us, everything’s shut down. The restaurants aren’t open, so we’re building connections to the community. Here in the U.S., we are donating to the No Kid Hungry Foundation, trying to support the kids that are out of school. We are also still open in the U.S., so we are making a lot of communication efforts to let people know that we are open, that they can count on us to have a safe and free delivery, that they can still come to our drive-thru, that we have super enhanced cleaning procedures.

We’re doing the best we can to try to monitor the situation and improve operations in the restaurants, but also trying to entertain people like we did with the Netflix idea, and improve our charity efforts.

So it’s a multi-layered plan with marketing in very different stages. As a marketing community, we are talking frequently trying to share best practices. RBI is a bigger company, and we can learn a lot from Burger King. Tim Hortons is also doing amazing initiatives. We are in this together as one team.

What are some of the challenges that you see Popeyes facing long term?
One long-term challenge is brand expansion. Many people know Popeyes is great, but they don’t come to us because of convenience. We are not located in every single neighborhood in the U.S., and this is a big barrier for trials.

The whole process of making Popeyes—an amazing niche brand—into a mass brand that is still authentic but appealing and accessible for everyone starts with something basic: availability. It’s a short-term challenge, but it is also a long-term challenge, in my opinion, because it takes time to do that.

The other long-term challenge is how to make Popeyes a leading brand in terms of sustainability, in terms of how we manage our products and how we make people feel good about them. I think it’s the challenge of every brand that wants to become iconic is how we make the brand relevant for the future. How we make the brand stand for something that goes beyond an amazing product.

So we are right now revisiting the brand strategy, the brand positioning, to be able to articulate something that is very meaningful that goes beyond beyond a hype. Most of the people in the U.S. discovered the brand last year. For many people, their first Popeyes experience was due to the craziness of the chicken sandwich. But we want to be a brand that is part of the everyday life of Americans and of people around the world.

Black Americans have been a huge part of Popeyes support base for years, and were a big part of amplifying the chicken sandwich discussion on Twitter. How will the brand stay true to that audience while growing its base, and how will you ensure that diversity is represented in the marketing and creative teams?
This is one of the main challenges that we have in the process of expanding the brand. Consumers want authentic stories and they want truth. If we try to please everyone, or pretend to be something that we’re not and deny our roots, I think people won’t buy into it. So I think we need to make a big effort to stay close to the communities, to listen to our guests.

They’re Popeyes hardcore fans, and I believe we have been doing a good job so far. When Beyonce launched the Ivy Park collection, we reacted super quickly launching That Look From Popeyes, which was basically a fashion photoshoot with our own uniforms. We put the uniform on sale and it was sold out immediately. That took us probably three or four days. And the secret behind this idea, and I think it’s the secret behind our way of doing marketing, is listening. Because I think when you listen, and when you’re close to your core audience, you can create content and ideas that will be relevant for everyone, because they are authentic. So we put a lot of efforts into listening, to keep exploring what our guests are telling us and putting them the spotlight. I think this is a core principle. To stay true to who we are.

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@klundster Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.