A little over four years ago, a single quote tweet from Popeyes to Chick-fil-A ignited the so-called chicken sandwich wars and changed the course of QSR menus toward a much more intentional path filled with handheld, portable, boneless poultry options.
Sure, we had seen consumer preferences shift to such options for several years prior to 2019, but for the most part, brands stayed in their lanes. Chick-fil-A had its sandwich. McDonald’s was a destination for McNuggets, and KFC had its bone-in loyalists. But on Aug. 12, 2019, when Popeyes launched its chicken sandwich, it quickly became the chain’s most successful product ever and helped spur accelerated growth for the brand. And so, as is typically the case in QSR, everyone else jumped in and we saw what seemed to be millions of chicken sandwich launches.
Now we’re starting to see iterations of those sandwiches, like Popeyes blackened chicken sandwich, KFC’s Ultimate BBQ chicken sandwich, Burger King’s Honey Mustard BK Royal Crispy Chicken, Wendy’s Ghost Pepper Ranch Chicken Sandwich, and McDonald’s Bacon Ranch McCrispy.
The chicken sandwich wars have even expanded beyond sandwiches, with iterations of nuggets, wraps, and tenders – all starring chicken, which became the most consumed protein throughout the past 30 years. Younger consumers have driven that consumption trend even further with their preference for boneless chicken. What do those consumer preferences look like now, exactly – four years after the tweet heard around the world (or, at least the industry)? New data from Revenue Management Solutions breaks down restaurant consumer insights on QSR menu items, analyzing sandwiches, nuggets, and bone-in chicken from top brands.
RMS found that consumers aren’t too price sensitive when it comes to chicken options, unless a 20% or more price increase is implemented. Also, consumers tend to choose a chicken product over a chicken brand. Nearly 60% of consumers, for example, choose their chicken sandwich based on the product, while just 21% choose based on the brand and 20% based on the price. However, if Chick-fil-A and Popeyes increase the price of their chicken sandwich by 20%, other brands gain preference.
Let’s break down the data further down by product:
Despite the “shots fired” tweet from Popeyes, most consumers, 25%, still prefer Chick-fil-A’s sandwich. Still, Popeyes ranks No. 2 with 20%, illustrating its sandwich has gained a significant amount of affinity in just four years.
Notably, this competition gets more interesting when examined by region. In the West and Midwest, for instance, Popeyes is the top chicken sandwich preference, while Chick-fil-A holds the crown in the Northeast and South. Burger King is No. 3 in the West and Northeast, while KFC is third in the Midwest and South.
KFC and Burger King are also tied for third overall, with 12%. Interestingly, KFC’s chicken sandwich didn’t launch until 2021, while Burger King launched its ill-fated Ch’King that same year, but later scrapped it for the Royal Crispy Chicken Sandwich. So, both brands have some catch-up work to do here.
Wendy’s jumped into the fried chicken sandwich conversation in late 2020, but sits fifth for consumer preference at 11%, while McDonald’s recent efforts to upgrade and rebrand its sandwich to the McCrispy have yet to move the needle much, with 8%. Just Wingstop (7%) and Jack in the Box (5%) round out the sandwich brands.
Generationally, all demographics agree that No. 1 belongs to Chick-fil-A and No. 2 belongs to Popeyes. For Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers, Burger King is third. For Gen Z, KFC is No. 3, indicating that the brand’s efforts to appeal to a younger consumer base seem to be paying off thus far. Further, KFC is third for families with kids, which is also part of the brand’s priorities.
Chick-fil-A also reigns supreme when it comes to chicken nuggets, with 28%. Popeyes, likely riding some momentum from its sandwich equity, is No. 2 at 23%. Speaking of brand equity, McDonald’s McNuggets are third with 18%.
KFC’s nuggets, launched just this year, are fourth at 13%, followed by Wendy’s at 10%, and Burger King at 8%.
Regionally, Chick-fil-A is the top nugget choice everywhere except the Northeast, where Popeyes nuggets are consumers’ preference. McNuggets are No. 2 in the West, and No. 3 in every other region. Gen X is the demographic putting Popeyes at the top, whereas every other generation has Chick-fil-A at No. 1. KFC is in the top three only for the Baby Boomers, who are not the product’s target generation. In fact, during the brand’s nugget launch, CMO Nick Chavez said he was confident the product will help KFC reach younger consumers, “which is our imperative.”
Once again, product trumps brand and price for consumers, though price is just 2% lower, indicating it’s more of a factor in purchase decisions for nuggets than other chicken products.
When it comes to bone-in chicken, KFC is the clear favorite and by the largest margin of any other chicken product, with 36%. KFC dominates every region, as well as every age demographic except for Popeyes, which is the preference for Gen Z.
Popeyes is No. 2 overall at 26%. The list is rounded out by El Pollo Loco (17%), Church’s Chicken (12%), and Bojangles (7%).
For bone-in consumers, product is the main purchase driver, at 47%, followed by price (27%) and brand (26%).
This data is likely to continue to change as brands continue to heavily innovate their chicken offerings. Chick-fil-A, for example, just launched a Honey Pepper Pimento Chicken Sandwich – its first seasonal twist on its signature product – while Burger King and KFC both recently launched chicken wraps. Taco Bell executives have hinted at their brand’s white space in chicken, and McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said his company is gaining share in chicken, which he called an “emerging global equity.”
The demand for such innovation certainly isn’t going anywhere; according to the USDA, chicken sales increased by 60% from 2021 to 2022. Globally, chicken consumption is expected to reach 180 million tons, from 120 million tons in 2021, and just 10 million tons in 1960.
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]