Under Marketing Chief Bruno Cardinali, Popeyes Is Eating Its Rivals’ Lunch

The Adweek 50 honoree launched the chicken sandwich that started a cheeky social media war

Popeyes' head of North American marketing, Bruno Cardinali, picking out a piece of chicken with tongs
Bruno Cardinali joined Popeyes at its head of North American marketing in March.
David Williams for Adweek

Prepping for the most significant new product launch in 30 years at Popeyes, Bruno Cardinali traveled to the chain’s Louisiana home turf, steeping himself in the area’s famous Cajun cuisine and hospitality.

David Williams for Adweek

Cardinali, who joined as head of North American marketing in March, says he wanted to “get to know the heritage and core values of Popeyes and define where we want to go from there,” ahead of the August drop of the company’s first chicken sandwich.

His goal, ultimately, was to use his field-trip research to help turn an underdog cult favorite into a national power player, challenging entrenched, deeper-pocketed rivals and spreading its hardcore fans’ devotion to the masses.

“This brand has huge potential,” says Cardinali, noting that the New Orleans experience set the table for what came next: the now-legendary Chicken Sandwich Twitter War of summer 2019 (with rival Chick-fil-A), in which the Popeyes product became a viral phenomenon and sold out of two months’ worth of buttermilk-battered filets on brioche buns in two frenzied weeks.

Cardinali then readied its permanent reintroduction in November, when consumers went to great (and sometimes violent) lengths to get a sandwich that reviewers have compared to Grandma’s cooking. (GQ said it “smells like a family reunion and tastes like homecoming.”)

While opinions may vary on the product’s merits, there’s no quibbling with the results in its wake: triple-digit boosts in Popeyes traffic and a 10% jump in same-store sales in the third quarter, some of the best numbers in nearly two decades.

The near-deafening buzz, driven largely by Black Twitter, translated to 2 million tweets, 3.3 billion impressions and an estimated $65 million in earned media within 14 days of the product’s kickoff.

Bruno Cardinali says he wanted to “get to know the heritage and core values of Popeyes and define where we want to go from there,” ahead of the August drop of Popeyes' first chicken sandwich.
David Williams for Adweek

But along with overwhelming demand came sporadic scuffles this fall as customers waited in long lines, including a stabbing death outside a Maryland store, which Cardinali calls “a tragic moment.” “It’s hard to talk about marketing in this context,” he says. “There is no reason for someone to lose their life.”

The brand, cooperating in the police investigation, is working with its franchisees to “reinforce that security is a top priority,” Cardinali says, staying the course on its advertising but holding off on any new campaigns.

Cardinali, who presided over “Traffic Jam Whopper,” which won multiple Cannes Lions while he was head of marketing for Burger King in Latin America and the Caribbean, has “a passion for growing businesses and people,” according to BK and Popeyes global CMO Fernando Machado, whose working relationship with Cardinali spans more than a decade. “He is always calm, very mature and has high creative ambition.”

Check out our full list of 2019 Adweek 50 honorees. 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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