Marketing Lessons From the Fast Food Wars Miguel Pujols July 12, 2020

Marketing Lessons From the Fast Food Wars

These are the rewards Popeyes Chicken is reaping after the latest battle in the ongoing Fast Food Wars. This viral success is unprecedented for America’s 19th largest fast-food chain, and it’s in large part thanks to a competitor nearly triple its size: Chick-fil-A.


It all started when Popeyes announced a new chicken sandwich. No big deal, right? That is, until Chick-fil-A decided to throw some competitive shade and a Twitter skirmish began, to the entertainment of the Interwebs. It wasn’t long before other brands like Wendy’s and Shake Shack jumped into the ring to throw their own jabs. And now, thanks to all the exposure, Popeyes finds itself selling out of chicken for these sandwiches… which should make poultry still clucking around nationwide very nervous.


The Fast Food Wars are generally agreed to have begun back in 2016, when Wendy’s poked fun at Burger King – which could be metaphorically viewed as a young woman taking down the royal patriarchy, but that’s probably looking too much into it. Since then, it has become a standard marketing strategy for the fast food titans to incite their competitors through snarky Tweets – but as this most recent exchange goes to show, sometimes it can backfire. Sure, Chick-fil-A got their share of exposure, but what they really did was help give a boost to Popeyes’ sales and awareness. Until now, was Popeyes a viral brand? Not really. But that all changed in August of 2019.


“You can do all the social media buzz that you want but if you don’t have a great tasting product, people won’t react the way that they have,” Restaurant Brands International (who assumed ownership of the franchise back in 2017)  CEO Jose Cil told Yahoo Finance, “We didn’t expect this type of reaction.”


They might not have expected it, but credit is due to Popeyes for jumping on an opportunity when it presented itself. For example, look at this video they made to apologize for selling out of their coveted sandwiches – and here’s the kicker: it also informs chicken-addicted consumers that if they want to be among the first to know when they are back in stock, to just download their app… brilliant. In fact, who’s to say Popeyes hasn’t engineered this temporary shortage exclusively to increase their app’s engagement?


While all of this may be great for sales, the Fast Food Wars – like all high-stakes conflicts – also had its share of inevitable casualties. A report by Business Insider detailed how horribly overworked Popeyes employees were to keep up with all the demand: exhausting 60 hour work weeks were made worse by surging chicken-craving mobs – all the while employees still got paid the same, barely-livable wage. That the level of frustration expressed by many consumers over a standard fried chicken sandwich (at the same exact time the Amazon rainforest went up in flames) stands as further proof our civilization might have to recalibrate its priorities to ensure basic survival.


That said, this virtriole and passion also stands as a reminder of the power of social media in marketing, especially when you consider this quote by Business Insider: “For many employees, the sudden, overwhelming response to the new menu item was strange, considering that the chicken sandwich had already been served in many locations for about a year.” Think about that for a moment. This item has been around for a year, but it wasn’t until these brands started baiting each other on Twitter that anyone actually gave a crap – including celebrities who posted about it on their social channels.


Of course, it didn’t take long for the social pendulum to swing the other way in the form of backlash over working conditions and even alleged racism – of course, because America 2019. Encouragingly, at least one decent human leveraged the long lines of this latest Fast Food War to do something more constructive, such as registering people to vote. As the dust (and feathers) settle, one thing is certain: regardless of how big or small your brand may be, much can be learned from these Fast Food Wars:


 • Your brand needs a clearly-defined identity. 

• Know who your competitors are.

• Personality goes a long way.

• Optimize opportunities when they present themselves. 

• Don’t be afraid to push people’s buttons. 

• Engage, engage, engage. 


Social media is an equalizer in the world of marketing. If you position yourself to optimize opportunities, you too can convince the world that a standard, fried-chicken sandwich is the best thing to happen to society since pumpkin-spiced lattes.