What the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Can Teach Us About Going Viral and Connecting With Communities

Fernando Machado, God-is Rivera and Angela Brown on what they learned from going viral at Brandweek

a popeyes employee holding a tray with the popeyes chicken sandwich on it
The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich found viral fame thanks to Twitter.
David Williams for Adweek

Brands dream of a moment like the one that came for the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich this summer. The new product attracted buzz on social media even before it launched nationwide, and once that date happened, all need for a strategic media plan went out the window when the sandwich went viral and sold out in stores. The fans—most notably, Black Twitter—spoke for the product, and what they were saying was resonating.

At Adweek’s Brandweek summit earlier this month in Palm Springs, Calif., the names behind the phenomenon—Fernando Machado, the global CMO for Burger King and Popeyes; Angela Brown, social strategist at GSD&M; and God-is Rivera, the global director of culture and community at Twitter—took the stage for a panel called “Y’all… The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Case.”

Afterward, they sat down with Adweek to talk about what brands can learn from Popeyes’ success when it comes to creating viral moments that resonate with influential online communities.

Have the right people in the room

If you want to engage with a community, having people who are a part of that community inside your organization is paramount, according to Rivera. “One of the ways that we see [these moments] really come to fruition is having people on your team that completely understand and identify with this audience,” she said. Having the right people in the room can help you not only connect with communities, but also to identify which groups you should be reaching out to in the first place.

Listen to your fans (and critics)

Rivera added that sitting back and really hearing what a community is talking about is the best way to learn how to engage with them. Observing a community’s behavior and taking in their values and habits is essential to understanding them—and engaging with them. “Look at how the groups talk to each other, look at who are some of the power voices that are rising to the top, and then slowly start to jump in,” Rivera said.

It’s only after you have this knowledge that you should jump in, because talking to audiences you don’t understand rarely translates to a message that resonates, added Brown. If you’re trying to engage a certain audience, you have to know “what are their values, what do they care about, what’s important to them?” she said. “A lot of times people just think, ‘We can’t find these people,’ but do you know what they need from you, and do you know what you need from them?”

Know when to step back

When a viral moment is happening, it’s tempting for a brand to participate in the conversation to milk every moment of its time in the spotlight. But sometimes, Machado said, saying too much can cause the chatter to die down—the opposite of what brands want.

For Popeyes, this dilemma came after the sandwich sold out nationwide. Instead of making major efforts to keep the conversation going, Machado said the Popeyes team instead let the natural conversation continue and kept the faith that the buzz would still be there once the sandwich eventually became available again. “There are times where you just have to step back a bit because the fire is burning, and you don’t need to throw more gas on the on the fire,” he said. “We knew it would explode again because it was something that everyone was waiting for.”

Brown said that was the exact strategy GSD&M took in the Popeyes scenario. After sending out a tweet responding to Chick-fil-A throwing shade about having the “original” chicken sandwich, Brown said the natural reaction to Popeyes’ response was so strong that they knew this was something bigger than what they alone could have created.

“In that moment, if you’re seeing people contribute amazing GIFs and memes, creating their own conversation, why would you want to mess that up?” she said. “Just look at it, see what’s already happening and how people are feeding off of one another’s energy. And honestly, if you see all that happening, don’t try to mess with it.”

When something works, keep going

Machado advised that when something goes viral, it happens for a reason—and that brands should continue on that path if they want their moment of fame to transition into something lasting.

“When we brought [the sandwich] back, we brought the same tone of voice in the same fun, entertaining way [that was] in keeping with the community,” he said. “It’s just a continuation of the strategy that succeeded to start with.”

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