How Twitter Turned the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Into a Viral Phenomenon

The sandwich of the summer takes the spotlight at Brandweek

Angela Brown, God-is Rivera, and Fernando Machado at Brandweek 2019
From left, GSD&M's Angela Brown, Twitter's God-is Rivera and Popeyes' Fernando Machado at Brandweek 2019.
Sean T. Smith for Adweek

PALM SPRINGS, CALIF.—The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich doesn’t have a complicated recipe with secret ingredients that leave customers guessing. In fact, according to Fernando Machado, the global CMO for Burger King and Popeyes, there’s “nothing fancy” about the sandwich, which has just four ingredients: a brioche bun, mayo, pickles and, of course, a piece of buttermilk fried chicken.

Simply, it was a “killer product,” Machado said onstage at Brandweek alongside Angela Brown, social strategist at GSD&M, and God-is Rivera, the global director of culture and community at Twitter, during their “Y’all… The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Case” panel on Monday.

“We nail every single ingredient,” he added. “So we wanted to bring this product out there in a way that would stand out and people would notice.”

If anything, people took too much notice. In August, the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich became a viral sensation on Twitter, and within a few weeks had sold out nationwide. But what was most impressive about the sandwich’s popularity? It all happened without Popeyes or the agency that handles its social media, GSD&M, enacting the media plan it had in place for the launch.

That’s thanks to Black Twitter, according to Rivera, who not only started the product’s earliest buzz but launched it into the social media stratosphere, ultimately leading to sold-out restaurants as the company tried to catch up.

“It’s not just the platform, but who is on the platform,” Rivera said. “That group had outsized impact that literally launched and propelled the conversation to 2 million tweets and 3.3 billion impressions. And I think that group is undeniably Black Twitter.”

From its earliest days on the market—even when the sandwich was just being tested in a few select cities—the social media chatter was already beginning.

“The hype was real,” Brown said. “We didn’t create this conversation; it was organically happening. What was happening was it was all the social media buzz, it was the mentions, it was the conversation, and they were really building this, all the topics and the narrative around this for us.”

But it was Popeyes’ biggest competitor in the chicken sandwich space—Chick-fil-A—that served as a catalyst for turning that growing social media buzz into a full-blown viral fervor. It was Chick-fil-A that tweeted out a message reading, “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the ❤️ for the original,” which appeared to be a subtweet at Popeyes’ new drop.

“There’s buzz around our quality product; it’s delicious,” Brown said. “And then you add the known conservative and anti-LGBTQ ideals of our competitor. This is the formula that equals one insecurity-ridden tweet.”

Popeyes took the moment to send a tweet of its own, calling out Chick-fil-A in a subtle way.

That tweet spawned a Twitter storm: It has over 323,400 likes and 86,000 retweets. Machado said the tone of the tweet was perfect, leaning on Popeyes’ Southern roots in a way that sounds exactly how you’d expect the brand to.

“[We] jumped on it with the right persona of the brand, which comes from Louisiana, from New Orleans,” he said. “It’s optimistic, joyful, it’s not punch in the face; the brand hit with the right tone, and I think that’s why it is so perfect. You can hear the accent in the tweet.”

It was what came after that tweet that turned the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich from a buzzy new product to a phenomenon, with 3.3 billion tweets to prove it, a conversation driven by Black Twitter—an audience, according to Rivera, that has perfected the “collective clapback.”

But Black Twitter is not an audience you can pay to target and connect with through traditional media methods. And that makes their endorsement all the more coveted—because it’s an authentic one.

“If you don’t know Black Twitter, you can’t find Black Twitter,” Rivera said. “It’s this group that really is a cultural phenomenon, a group of people that identifies through the lens of black culture. They’re able to discuss politics, pop culture, so many other topics daily through that lens of a very shared experience.

“And that experience so many times sets global trends around the world. And we’re seeing that today.”

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