5 Lessons We Learned From Popeyes Viral Success And How You Can Use It To Grow Your Business

  • Andre Kay
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5 Lessons We Learned From Popeyes Viral Success And How You Can Use It To Grow Your Business

This article is not another review of who has the best chicken sandwich. Because we already know the answer to that, but we’ll save that debate for another time.

We’re dissecting if the $65 million in free press plus the 1,000,000+ social media mentions, posts and retweets were worth what comes with unexpected viral success. People are even buying chicken sandwiches on eBay for thousands of dollars. In other words, Popeyes has accomplished something only very few brands could without any national ad campaign or celebrity sponsorship.

But not every brand is ready for viral success. Doesn’t matter how large they are. If their processes are not in place to prepare the brand for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through their doors, you will end up losing big time.

Think about it this way, imagine you have a regular online t-shirt shop, and Oprah or Kylie Jenner tells everyone that they purchase something from your website and their followers should support you. That would be millions of hits to your website within minutes and it will 100% crash! If you don’t have the processes or technology in place to get your site back up within minutes, you will lose millions of dollars and your reputation.

That scenario is what’s happening with Popeyes. They didn’t expect this viral boom, and it caused their employees to work double overtime, lines to stretch around the block, and some locations to run out of chicken sandwiches entirely. It also caused inconsistency in their product and created thousands of frustrated customers.

I visited multiple locations and noticed that 80% of people that bought the sandwiches were people that already supported the brand, maybe not all at the same time but were all expected customers. Only about 10 – 20% of people that visited were first-time customers, and half of those will probably never return.

They could have prevented this by having the marketing, purchasing, and operations team worked together immediately when they signaled that this was going viral. Even though no-one can predict what will go viral, with the right social media tools tracking the right metrics, you can catch it before it blows up.

So let’s start at the beginning. On August 12th, 2019, Popeyes officially released their new Chicken Sandwich.

On August 19th, Chick-Fil-A tweeted “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the ♥ for the original.” A shot at Popeyes new chicken sandwich that is also made of Chicken, Brioche Bun, and Pickles.

Then Wendy’s with their 3.3 million followers started the biggest chicken war of 2019 with one tweet “Y’all out here fighting about which of these fools has the second-best chicken sandwich.”

When Wendy’s took a shot at Popeyes, that is the exact moment I knew this would create a viral conversation on everyone’s feed. This is the exact moment the marketing, purchasing, and operation departments should have paid attention.

Running a social media marketing company for over ten years, and working in marketing for more than fifteen years, I’ve worked with some of the biggest franchises in the world. I’ve seen my share of viral campaigns. So my marketing senses immediately kicked in, and I couldn’t stop thinking of all the things they should have been doing behind the scenes.

Let’s break it down.

Marketing:

Their marketing team should have been paying attention. The moment people started creating chicken sandwich memes, and Popeyes Twitter started blowing up with retweets they should have brought the operations team in the conversation.

This was very noticeable because before the chicken sandwich announcement, they never received more than 1000 retweets an average on any given posts. After Chick-fil-a and Wendy’s joined the conversation, those mentions significantly increased. That was the first signal of the chicken sandwich going viral.

Operations:

After the Operations team got notified of what was happening on social media, they should have put a plan in place to activate or create the processes that would help the locations prepare for the attention that quickly moved from social media to the restaurants.

From increasing staff, ordering products to the procedures needed to handle a large crowd. For example, I visited multiple locations 2 weeks after the release, and there were still 8 or so employees working inside and no-one outside. In contrast, on any given day, Chick-fil-a has double that amount of people working.

I also notice that the line at Popeyes was the same length at Chick-fil-a every day. However, while you would only wait 10 minutes at Chick-fil-a, you waited an hour or longer at Popeyes. If the proper procedures and processes were in place, then the experience would be more favorable.

In a crazy social media way, those long lines were like pouring fuel on an already blazing fire. Because FOMO drives people. Now when the operations team noticed the long lines, they should have brought the purchasing team in the conversation.

Purchasing:

The purchasing team should have already been on watch from when the social media mentions grew substantially. Then should have been planning how to get more products to the restaurants when the lines started forming at the local restaurants. 

It’s also important to note that Popeyes is a chicken chain, so they should have plenty of chicken in stock plus influential buying power with their food distributors to easily get all the ingredients they need to make the chicken sandwiches. 

We can’t overlook that the issue with the product might even go deeper than just not having chicken. These items might be proprietary to Popeyes and therefore might require additional development.

If they use standard premium stock chicken and do the coating with breading and unique toppings at the restaurant level, then this would not be a hard issue to solve with emergency deliveries and calls to their distributors. However, if the chicken is pre-breaded, then that is not just the distributor, but a manufacturing issue. 

Even though those are some of the things that should have been done to weather this viral moment, I also know that there are things that if not planned correctly could also be a roadblock in meeting demand.

Supply & Demand:

Running out of chicken sandwiches might have worked temporarily in their favor, but that probably happened by mistake. If you understand how restaurants get their products from their food distribution partners to the restaurants, you’ll know that Popeyes was perhaps at the mercy of the distributors.

The distributors probably didn’t have enough supplies, or if they get their products like their chicken directly from a farm, they probably have to wait weeks to get the quantity needed to supply their restaurants. This is also why vendor relationships are essential in franchising and business in general.

Labor is hard:

Hiring dozens of new employees at the same time is no easy feat. Hiring is also timely and costly for franchises. In addition to hiring, they would need to sufficiently train those employees, and that also requires manpower and time.

Company Culture:

To operate like a Chick-fil-a, that has to be baked into your entire company culture. I’ve seen the same car lines that Popeyes is now experiencing every day at Chick-fil-a, but their culture was built to operate at that capacity. From how the staff engages with their customers to take orders in the drive-thru or inside the restaurants. That takes a lot of training and planning, and Popeyes was just not built that way.

Conclusion

Even with all the things that they had total control of, there were many things they had no power to control. This is a great learning experience for Popeyes and any other franchise business that might end up with viral success.

1. Start from now, look at your marketing strategies and technologies, are they enough to help you get in front of a situation like this before it spreads like wildfire?

2. What about your vendor relationships? If you’re a $1 million client to them, will they put a $500 million client on hold to help you meet the demands that would essentially help to serve your customers better?

3. Most importantly, your company processes. Do you have well-defined procedures that can address customer service, product management, and human resources that your brand can easily activate and deploy across multiple locations and departments?

4. I did admire what Popeyes did after running out of chicken sandwiches. They started driving everyone to download their app if they wanted to keep in touch when chicken sandwiches are back in stock. That was a genius move! Kudos to their marketing team for putting that in play.

Now they have hundreds of thousands of app downloads. What they do with the data will be important. Will they use it to better understand how their customers engage with them that would essentially help them to be better prepared for another viral moment?

5. We can’t deny the fact that even with all the failures, missed opportunities, this was an overall win for the local franchisees. Without no additional spend except for food cost, they received a lot of new customers that resulted in the high volume of sales that will undoubtedly have a positive impact on their balance sheet. Now they can hire more people in their local communities, and that in my book is a win.

Special Thanks to Reid Notle, Vice President of Brand Strategy at Ballard Brands, Omar Hawthorne, Director, Franchise Development & Community Affairs at Golden Krust Caribbean Restaurant and Shayla Moore Director of Marketing and Communications at CREAM, Inc. for their contribution.

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