Data Deep Dive: The Unlikely Winners of the Chicken Wars

By this point, you are undoubtedly aware that Popeyes became an overnight national sensation on the back of their new chicken sandwich. As a result of the ‘Chicken Wars’ battle with Chick-fil-A, Popeyes saw in-store visits that were more than double the expected number for the period. This led to the chain selling out of the product, a result that, shockingly, even led to violence.

But what went under the radar was that the Chicken Wars did more than drive lines around the block to Popeyes branches, it created an ongoing impact on the brand and set off a Chicken craze across the country.

Beyond The Chicken Sandwich

We analyzed daily visits for four Chicken-oriented QSR chains  – Popeyes, KFC, Chick-fil-A and Zaxby’s – for the period between July 1st and August 31st, 2019. Looking at Popeyes first sees a brand that was at the edge of massive social craze. This led to daily traffic that peaked on Friday, with visits that were 218.2% above the average daily traffic in July. Yet, even long after the chicken sandwich was sold out on August 27th, the visits kept rolling in. The last Friday and Saturday of the month were still 96.7% and 72.1% higher than the July average respectively.

Benefits to Go Around

KFC also saw a huge peak at the end of the month with visits during the last Friday and Saturday of the month that were 29.2% and 13.2% above the baseline for the period.

This is a fascinating development that becomes all the more interesting when you compare the visits of Popeyes (red) and KFC (blue) over the period of June 2018 through August 2019. Popeyes and KFC have near-identical traffic trends and similar overall numbers. Yet, as Popeyes was coming down from their incredible summer high, the seemingly infectious desire for chicken did not. Instead, consumers started looking to fulfill their poultry desires elsewhere – including KFC.

And it wasn’t just KFC that saw a boost. Chick-fil-A, the brand that will forever be associated with the kickoff of Chicken Wars hostilities, saw a traffic jump in late August as well. Though they do see an annual jump at this point in the year, likely related to the impending start of school.

And even Zaxby’s, a brand that initially suffered from a Popeyes dominated war for the hearts and minds of the Fried Chicken disciple, saw visit increase significantly in late August.

Why This Matters

There is a tendency to look at an event and see it only in isolation. In this case, it would have been very fair to assume that the Popeyes craze mattered to Popeyes and Chick-fil-A only. But it would be equally fair to assume that Prime Day is just for Amazon – and it isn’t. The reality is that major industry trends, even when centered around a single brand can create huge opportunities for all related players.

Looking at Google Trends data shows that just after the Popeyes craze began to fall, searches for Chicken Sandwich began to rise, demonstrating the huge opportunity.

And this opportunity translated into huge numbers – when looking at the total traffic to the 4 brands combined. While a typical summer weekend (Friday + Saturday) drove a total of 8.3 million visitors to these 4 chains, the peak of the Chicken War on August 23rd and 24th drove 10.1 million poultry craving Americans. But even more interesting, August 30th and 31st, days that came after the Popeyes chicken sandwich ran out, still drove 9.8 visitors. That’s 1.5 Million Americans that simply got “infected with the chicken craze,” be it Popeye’s or not.

And this takeaway isn’t limited to chicken – whether in sandwich form or not – and has wide implications for retailers in every sector. It simply is not enough to focus solely on your own brand and the events and trends you are looking to take advantage of. Having an awareness of the wider market and the consumer behavior driving critical shifts can present access to massive opportunities for growth.  

Can the Chicken Wars concept be brought back next summer? Can Popeyes move quickly enough to capitalize on its new central position with new deals or products? Will neighboring companies prepare for the next wave with complementary deals and concepts?

These are the types of questions that will define the brands that can maximize the full calendar year.

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