In 2019, the most talked-about fast-food item of the year was the Popeyes chicken sandwich, and two years later the simple crispy chicken sandwich is igniting and reigniting chicken sandwich wars across the quick-service and fast-casual spectrum.
In the age of viral TikToks and influencer-backed products, how can operators get in on the finger-scrolling success? Popeyes chief market officer Bruno Cardinali sat down with Nation’s Restaurant News’ editor-in-chief Sam Oches for the final CREATE digital dive session of the year to discuss the future of marketing in the age of social media.
Here’s what we learned.
Make your customers ‘believe the hype’
It may sound obvious, but all the social media excitement in the world can’t make up for a subpar product, otherwise your ‘moment’ could be just a virtual flash in the pan. Cardinali said that it was important for the quality of the Popeyes chicken sandwich to live up to fan buzz.
“Before we launched nationally, we tracked conversations with market test, and we saw enormous amount of people comparing the sandwich to other brands out there,” Cardinali said. “We put together a marketing plan on how to launch product and the brief was one line: ‘Believe the hype.’ There’s a lot of hype out there but our sandwich was outperforming every other product on the market. Pay attention to product development and make sure you have a very good product.”
You can’t force virality
As much as the stars seemed to align between the quality of the product and market tests, Cardinali learned that they would not have been able to entirely manufacture the social media virality of the chicken sandwich.
“We didn’t create any wars, it just happened naturally,” Cardinali said. “This has never happened before. [Our franchisees] understand that this is a once in a lifetime product launch. As we move forward, internally, we’ve been working to go back to the basics of our business.”
Embrace your social media personality
Even though it’s nearly impossible to manufacture hype, you can build up your brand’s identity online by honing a playful social media personality.
“Popeyes continues to have fun, to dare and to put ourselves out there,” Cardinali said. “TikTok has a bunch of cohorts that you can work with. And then its about who are you trying to target? People who have engaged with your brand before or new content? […] The most important point is having a relevant content.”
For example, Popeyes has embraced its New Orleans heritage and shows that voice on different social media platforms.
Work with influencers
The days of the traditional celebrity sponsorship with cameos in TV commercials are nearly over. Now, it’s all about brand ambassadors that naturally love the product and can help to promote it on their platform. For example, Popeyes worked with hip hop artist Meghan Thee Stallion this fall to create her own dipping sauce, “Hottie Sauce,” a spicy-sweet honey and vinegar-based sauce.
“She loves the Popeyes sandwich and was one of the first to get her hands on the chicken sandwich and talk about it without us even knowing at first,” Cardinali said. “She has been supportive of the brand and is an authentic brand ambassador. We reached out to her and started working together on product development and that was that.”
Know your platform
It’s crucial to not lump all of a brand’s social media presence in one: know your audience and particularly know your platform, he said.
“You should not post the same thing on Twitter as you would on Instagram or TikTok,” Cardinali said. “The audience is different on each platform […] you have to bring in relevant content and authenticity to these platforms.”
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