What entrepreneurs can learn from the chicken sandwich wars

Chik-fil-A and Popeye's have been locked in battle for chicken sandwich supremacy. Strangely, there's a lesson in it for you.
6 minute read
Adam Smith @HomebrandAdam
Technical Co-pilot
Cover photo for What entrepreneurs can learn from the chicken sandwich wars

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The business lessons we're learning from Chik-fil-A and Popeye's

It began with an innocent announcement.

Popeye's, the beloved fried chicken franchise with a loyal fanbase, announced it would be releasing a chicken sandwich. It might have been one more item on an already crowded fast food menu. It might have garnered some mild enthusiasm from loyalists. Whatever the result, it's doubtful anyone expected the announcement to spark a viral phenomenon.

Then Chik-fil-A wandered into the fray. The fast food restaurant is known for one thing and one thing only: chicken sandwiches. It dominates its competitors with a 27.9% share of the fast food chicken market. It even claims (albeit spuriously) to have invented the chicken sandwich. In other words, its position is secure.

Nevertheless, unwilling to let sleeping chickens lie, Chik-fil-A fired a rather innocuous shot across Popeye's bow with a tweet saying, "Bun+Chicken+Pickles = all the [love] for the original." That simple tweet is all it took to spark the Chicken Wars of 2019.

Popeye's deftly fired back, quoting Chik-fil-A's original tweet with a cutting rejoinder, "y'all good?" And from that moment, it was on. The pair commenced dragging each other on social media while Popeye's sandwich gained viral fame, leading to customers lining up for hours and restaurants running out of sandwiches.

The saga is continuing, as Popeye's prepares to bring its sandwich back on 3 November. The fact that this is a Sunday, the day Chik-fil-As are closed nationwide, is no coincidence. Popeye's says it's even brought on extra staff to accommodate demand.

Whichever camp you find yourself in, whether you're drawn to Popeye's market disruption or fiercely loyal to Chik-fil-A, there are big lessons in your business from the ongoing Chicken Wars. Let's look at how a humble sandwich can help you succeed as an entrepreneur.

Find a gap in the market

Popeye's was savvy in identifying an area where they could compete. While other fast food restaurants have fried chicken sandwiches on their menu, none are synonymous with them like Chik-fil-A. But with Chik-fil-A's corner on the chicken sandwich market comes a fair dose of controversy.

Chik-fil-A's brand has become a symbol for the culture wars. The company has drawn criticism for donating to anti-LGBTQ charities, and for staunchly refusing to add sexual orientation and gender identity into its employment anti-discrimination policy. Popeye's was immediately able to position itself, without even speaking a word, as the alternative for consumers whose conscience kept them away from Chik-fil-A.

If you're an entrepreneur, you don't necessarily have to pioneer an entirely new market. You can also succeed by finding a market where a particular demographic is underserved. Or, you can look for markets where there's one dominant player and then determine a way you can disrupt that player. What segments of the market is it ignoring? What services is it failing to offer that its target demographic is asking for?

Unlike Chik-fil-A, Popeye's never claimed to have invented the chicken sandwich. Instead, they saw a market where no one else was aggressively competing and the opportunity to serve a demographic Chik-fil-A had alienated. That's smart marketing.

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Prepare for demand

Where Popeye's went wrong is in anticipating demand. Of course, the company had no way to anticipate that its lighthearted back-and-forth with Chik-fil-A over Twitter would ignite a viral firestorm. Still, if Popeye's had done its homework to understand its total addressable market, it could have been much better prepared.

Popeye's lack of preparation led to customers waiting for hours, only to find out their local restaurant had sold out of sandwiches. It also led to gruelling work weeks for its employees, who probably hadn't anticipated the onslaught of demand. This even opened the door for Chik-fil-A to get off a good shot on social media, pointing out that, unlike its competitor, its restaurants didn't run out of sandwiches.

Being inundated with demand seems like a very good problem to have. However, if you're unprepared to meet that demand you risk creating negative customer experiences. Frustrating your customer on your very first interaction with them is a bad precedent to set. You need to have plans in place to sustainably scale your operations if you're hit with a wave of demand.

Know your strengths

Plenty of other fast food restaurants have chicken sandwiches. McDonald's has tried to compete with Chik-fil-A with its own fried chicken sandwich. Wendy's has chicken sandwiches on the menu, as does Burger King. But none of these sandwiches have caused a ripple. Why? Because, fundamentally, they're chicken sandwiches on the menu of a burger restaurant.

Popeye's was smart in identifying its strong position to bring real competition to Chik-fil-A. After all, its expertise is fried chicken. It's far more synonymous with fried chicken than Chik-fil-A. That means Popeye's was perfectly placed to transfer its expertise to making fried chicken sandwiches. And it's worked. As a result of the sandwich hysteria, Popeye's has posted its strongest quarter in 20 years.

Successful entrepreneurs identify their areas of strength and expertise, and look at how they can transfer this expertise to solve problems for consumers. In areas where they aren't strong, they look to partner with experts rather than compete. For example, look at all the SaaS tools that have integrated with Slack. They could have built a competing instant messaging system, but they realized that Slack had shown its expertise in the area and chose to work together to provide solutions rather than compete.

Social media is a powerful ally

The Chicken Wars simply wouldn't have been possible without social media. Twitter sparked the sandwich frenzy, and Twitter has kept it alive for more than two months now.

Chik-fil-A could be questioned for choosing to engage with Popeye's in the first place. Advertising consultancy Apex Marketing Group has estimated that Chik-fil-A's foray into the Twitter war has delivered Popeye's about $23.5 million in free advertising.

But, at the risk of sounding hackneyed, a rising tide lifts all boats. Chik-fil-A has also seen a boost to its already significant sales. Whether or not Popeye's has been the beneficiary, Chik-fil-A started a social media trend that put the humble chicken sandwich top of mind in pop culture. That's an impressive feat.

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Understanding how to use social media, which platforms to use and how to engage with them can change the course of your startup's future. Linking into trending conversations can elevate your brand's profile and move you from the periphery to the mainstream. Popeye's has always had a loyal following, but its social media prowess has brought first-time customers through its doors and ballooned its fanbase.

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Quality wins

Ultimately, the Chicken Sandwich Wars won't come down to who has the better social media team or who aligns with prevailing political ideologies. The battle will be won by the best chicken sandwich. From all indications, that mantle goes to Popeye's.

Popeye's may never overtake Chik-fil-A in market share. There's a lot of ground to make up on that front. But if it offers a higher quality alternative, it will succeed where other fast food restaurants have failed. It will offer legitimate competition in a niche where Chik-fil-A has gone unchallenged.

Building a quality product is vital. A quality product does much of your marketing work for you. Take DropBox, for example. DropBox achieved incredible growth solely on the strength of its product. While other tech companies poured money into marketing, DropBox focused on building a product people would want to use, and making that product as convenient and user-friendly as possible.

Whether you're a social media wizard, a consummate salesperson or a brilliant marketing strategist, if you build a bad product, you'll churn through customers and erode your lifetime value. Build a great product and you'll inspire a loyal fanbase who become evangelists for your brand.

Learn How to Build a Product

Conclusion

As of the publication of this article, the Chicken Sandwich Wars are still raging. Perhaps in a few months, this will all seem like a distant, quirky memory and chicken sandwiches will be an afterthought. But there's no arguing that this strange moment in pop culture has delivered big wins both to Chik-fil-A and Popeye's. And if you dig deep enough through that crispy, golden breading, you'll find a lesson waiting there for you as well.

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