What’s Slaying the All-American Burger?

After 5 years of steady growth, chicken comes home to roost

Could the hamburger, the long-reigning, all-American favorite, finally be toast?

Beef burgers made their name as a workingman’s meal during the Great Depression—before evolving into the symbol of American corporatism and cultural hegemony that they have become. The Economist, singing the praises of the burger, once called it “a symbol of the reassuring predictability, the pre-packaged straightforwardness, the sheer lack of pretension of American life.”

But move over, burger—chicken is having a moment.

For the first time in a century, Americans are gobbling up more of the humble bird—much of it in the form of fried chicken drumsticks, crispy chicken sandwiches and chicken nuggets—than double cheeseburgers, sliders and T-bones. Chicken consumption, after growing steadily over the last five years, last year finally paced ahead of beef, according to the USDA. This, as a four-year drought in Texas, which produces the bulk of our beef, has forced prices skyward and triggered a beef shortage. On the flip side, there is such tremendous demand for chicken that this is shaping up to be the most profitable year ever for chicken producers, as Bloomberg reports, with a surge in wholesale prices boosting profits for giants like Arkansas-based Tyson Foods.

It’s little wonder, then, that fast-food chains like Burger King are jumping into poultry in a big way, even as a couple of heavy hitters already well-known for their bird—Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Chick-fil-A—are enjoying a growth spurt. “As we see a systemic decline in beef consumption, relatively inexpensive and easily available chicken is turning into the universal protein,” notes John Gordon, analyst and principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group.

Just how hot is chicken? Last year, U.S. sales at limited-service chicken chains shot up 4 percent, while comparable burger chains saw less than half that growth, with a 1.5 percent bump, per Technomic. Particularly revealing, Chick-fil-A became the No. 1 fast-food outlet in the U.S. in per store sales as of 2012, tallying $3.1 million per location, versus $2.6 million for McDonald’s and $1.2 million for Burger King. Even Domino’s—in the process of phasing “pizza” out of its name—has caught chicken fever, launching its Specialty Chicken line in April with a national TV campaign from lead creative agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The new menu offering consists of a dozen chunks of breaded chicken breast covered with sauce, cheese and assorted pizza toppings. “This is a one-of-a-kind product that reinvents the way chicken is served in our industry,” boasts Russell Weiner, Domino’s CMO. “Our pizza expertise inspires items like this outside of the traditional pizza category.”

TV spots promoting Domino’s concoction focus on how the company isn’t afraid to take risks and, in keeping with its recent marketing messaging, how it sometimes fails. “We are proud to be known as a pizza company, but Specialty Chicken shows we are not afraid to step out of our comfort zone,” says Weiner. “We encourage our team members to keep trying to get better. Failure sometimes shows itself on the road to success.”

Burger King, stinging from a 1 percent dip in U.S. sales in 2013, recently debuted its Chicken Big King sandwich and dusted off its legendary “Subservient Chicken” campaign, created by Crispin and The Barbarian Group a decade ago. It relaunched the website subservientchicken.com, which made advertising history by putting an actor in a chicken suit who seemingly performed stunts on command. (In reality, numerous possible reactions were filmed.) This time around, the site sports a video about the fabled “chicken man,” claiming he’s gone MIA. As part of the campaign, the fugitive chicken shows up in unexpected places, prompting Twitter sightings.

The South Rises

Leading this charge are two chains based in the Southeast, a region where fried chicken is taken as seriously as football, iced tea and God.

Last year, Chick-fil-A—which lately has earned headlines not so much for its food as for its outspoken, conservative Christian CEO Dan Cathy—strutted ahead of Kentucky Fried Chicken in total sales, even though Chick-fil-A has only 1,800 U.S. outlets to KFC’s 4,500. And Chick-fil-A is in rapid-expansion mode, with outlets slated for the West, Midwest and Northeast, including New York City (where it currently boasts but one location, inside a dorm at New York University in Greenwich Village). The chain plans to be a presence in 41 states by this fall. 

While its fried chicken sandwich with pickles on a soft, buttery bun made it a legend, last month Chick-fil-A got serious about becoming the healthy choice among chicken joints, replacing its char-grilled sandwiches with three grilled chicken items. “This is the largest investment we’ve made in a product launch,” says CMO Steve Robinson. “We’ve been working for years to get this grilled product right, even inventing our own grill. It’s all part of our commitment to be the better-for-you fast food.”

Next up for Chick-fil-A: persuading more consumers to choose chicken for breakfast, with items such as chicken and waffles on the front burner.

One thing that will remain a constant at Chick-fil-A is its distinctive marketing from Dallas-based The Richards Group. The centerpiece of the advertising is an anthropomorphic cow wearing a sandwich board that urges consumers to “Eat Mor Chikin.” Campaigns encompass TV and out-of-home as well as a broad line of merchandise, including a cow-of-the-month calendar. (In newer markets, the chain has been known to run the original ads that kicked off the cow-themed campaign 19 years ago.)

Popeyes is right on Chick-fil-A’s heels. With 1,721 locations in 47 states, it has run national TV spots since 2008. To solidify its brand position, the urban fried chicken-and-biscuits brand underwent a major makeover five years ago and became Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, adding a handful of Cajun-themed dishes. The restaurants are currently being remodeled so they are centered around a giant spice rack that represent all the spices that go into its New Orleans-style menu offerings. The redo was the brainchild of CEO Cheryl Bachelder, who joined Popeyes in 2007 after serving as president of KFC.

“Americans often associate Louisiana with good food, according to our research, so we decided to talk about our Louisiana heritage with gusto and specificity,” explains CMO Dick Lynch, a Bachelder hire. Advertising is anchored by a fictional character called Annie, a middle-age, African-American woman from Louisiana who likes to cook. Aside from promoting the chain’s latest special offer, Annie explains the nuances of Cajun cooking to audiences largely far removed from the Big Easy.

The company also runs a cooking program in New Orleans for its most successful franchise owners. The Louisiana Heritage Culinary Institute introduces the franchisees to Cajun and Creole dishes such as rice fritters and New Orleans barbecue shrimp. “We will always be Louisiana—we lean into it,” as Lynch puts it. “As we expand in both big cities and suburbs, we want to win people over to our culture.”

Whither KFC?

Despite its heady new status as the meat of choice, no one ever said selling chicken to the masses was easy. 

Photo: Michael Clinard

In the U.S., KFC outlets have struggled in recent years, as the company focused more on its breathtaking growth in China. Average U.S. sales per store in 2012 were an anemic $957,000—less than one-third that of Chick-fil-A and less than half that of Popeyes. Last year, sales at KFC tanked 6.7 percent, even as its rivals were cooking. “There is no fast fix for KFC,” David C. Novak, CEO of parent Yum Brands, told industry analysts last year. (Since then, food-safety issues put a damper on the chain’s expansion in China, and Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed was tapped to run Yum Brands, replacing Novak.)

In a stab at turning things around, the world’s most famous purveyor of fried chicken is getting creative—and in some cases, downright wacky. In October, it introduced the KFC Go Cup, fried chicken and fries served in a cup that fits in most car cup holders. More than 20 million were sold in the first three months, according to spokesman Rick Maynard. Other products are so over the top that they became instant catnip for social media—among them, the Double Down, a sandwich constructed of slabs of fried chicken substituting for bread, and a drumstick-festooned corsage just in time for prom season, which spawned a promotional video designed to build even more buzz. Meanwhile, KFC is attempting to reinforce its identity as “the brand that’s a family meal solution,” as Maynard puts it. To that end, the chain is kicking in a free chocolate chip cake with the purchase of every 10-piece chicken meal.

The biggest restaurant brand of them all, McDonald’s—which in the early ’80s made Chicken McNuggets a staple of the American fast-food diet—has had its own challenges when it comes to chicken. It had egg on its face this past February after the rollout of its Mighty Wings spicy fried chicken item, whose sales were so limp that the company got stuck with 10 million pounds of unsold wings, languishing in the freezer and speeding toward their expiration date. McDonald’s was forced to mark them down by 40 percent.  

Naturally, a marketer as savvy as McDonald’s doesn’t launch a new product without exhaustive research. As it happens, McDonald’s test marketing in the Chicago and Atlanta markets indicated that the chain had a major hit on its hands—overlooking the fact that wings happen to be disproportionately popular in those cities. In other towns, as it turns out, customers balked at the dollar-a-wing pricing, found the spices intimidating and were annoyed by the bones. The media had a field day over the rare McDonald’s flop. (What was lost in the reportage was that, while 10 million pounds may seem like a lot of bird, McDonald’s initially bought 50 million pounds of wings, selling 80 percent of the inventory at the premium price.)

Making People Fatter

Another key factor driving chicken’s rise is the perception that it is a healthier choice than beef—forget that much of that chicken comes battered and deep fried. “Fried chicken has more calories and fat than beef, and the shift from burgers to fried chicken won’t help our obesity problems,” says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy. 

In fact, the growing popularity of chicken could make us even fatter. One need only compare a Burger King cheeseburger with a Popeyes fried chicken breast to find that the chicken boasts some 40 percent more calories and greater than twice the saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium of the burger.

Chick-fil-A’s new grilled menu offerings aside, the chicken chains could do a better job of making healthier choices available, as Harris sees it. “If these places really wanted to sell healthy chicken, grilled chicken would be priced better, any chicken sandwich would come with grilled chicken automatically unless people ask for fried, and the grilled items would be advertised more extensively than the fried variety. Plus, counter displays and menu designs would favor grilled over fried items,” she says. 

That said, our collective fingers will likely just get greasier.

Going back to the hamburger, it harkens back to a time when America and American tastes were more homogeneous, as analyst Gordon sees it. “Fast-food chains could serve [the same] mass-market items, such as burgers, to everyone,” he explains.

Chicken heralds not just a culinary but also a societal shift. “Our country is not so ‘mass’ anymore. We are broken into many social strata and different locales,” says the analyst, who declares that the rise of chicken—whether grilled or deep fried, in a bucket or on a bun—is no mere fad. “It reflects a fundamental change in our culture.”