When restaurant chains dive into demographics to better understand customers, it often returns results along these lines: The brand over-indexes with a certain age group, or household income. People who favor convenience over experience, or vice versa. And so on. But the study Zaxby’s conducted recently drew a clear roadmap to differentiation—a critical need given the chicken segment’s suddenly electric marketing landscape.

“What we found was they were entertainment enthusiasts,” says Joel Bulger, the 900-unit chain’s CMO. “They were big into live sports. They were big into movies. They were big into experiences of all kinds.”

Bulger officially joined Zaxby’s in April 2018. His hire was a headliner because the brand, for all its name value and scale, hadn’t employed a dedicated marketing chief in 28 years of history. Co-founder Zach McLeroy was, for all intents and purposes, Zaxby’s acting CMO, helping craft a $2 billion company started with childhood friend Tony Townley.

Bulger helmed the same role at hybrid concept Johnny Rockets before joining. Previously, he worked senior positions at Wendy’s, Church’s Chicken, Moe’s Southwest Grill, and Darden.

One of the early day targets for Bulger at Zaxby’s was to find opportunity in how the company spent its media. He brought on two new agencies—Tombras, out of Knoxville, Tennessee, for creative, and Dallas-based Camelot to handle media buys.

Camelot mined customer data and came away with that entertainment-enthusiast whiteboard for Zaxby’s to brainstorm around.

It’s now roughly two years since Bulger came to Zaxby’s and the brand’s reenergized direction is on full display. “I think folks get trapped inside the four walls,” he says. “And the lives of our guests are so much bigger than that. Where a brand really shines, I think, in people’s lives is that it’s not about forcing them to come to our restaurant. It’s about making our brand a part of their lives.”

“And so, when we’re linked to the things they’re passionate about it makes more sense for them to come see us more often, right? We’re really partners on the experience continuum they’re on,” Bulger adds.

The most visible manifestation of this is Zaxby’s ongoing movie partnerships, now in its third iteration with “Jumanji: The Next Level,” which hit theaters December 13.

Zaxby’s launched three menu items to coincide with the collaboration: Southwest Chipotle and Smokehouse Cheddar BBQ Fillet Sandwiches, as well as a Jumanji Citrus Fizz drink it developed with Coca-Cola using Freestyle machines. It’s made with Minute Maid Orange and Seagram’s Ginger Ale, and served in a 42-ounce Jumanji-themed commemorative cup.

The process illustrates marketing evolution for Zaxby’s. The brand began working with movies in March with “Shazam!”—a promotion that introduced two new chicken sandwiches as well, the Savory & Sweet, Honey Butter & Bacon and Fiery Zaxville Hot.

But when it came to the TV spots themselves, Zaxby’s simply used their assets, or live action from the movie that had already been shot and edited.


Then, in late May, the brand teamed with Sony Pictures (same as Jumanji) on “Men in Black: International.” Again, menu activations followed (Cosmic Chocolate Cookie and Mello Yello Unidentified Fizzy Object drink). Now, though, the ads progressed to where Zaxby’s had access to actual props from the movie, like alien hands from the set and a “neuralizer.”


With Jumanji, Zaxby’s challenged Sony, Bulger says, to take creative a step further. Rhys Darby, who plays guide Nigel in the movie, leads the chicken chain’s spots, taking customers on a “Taste Adventure,” as you can see below. It’s a more synergistic and an obvious fit for customers to connect the dots. Zaxby’s had a hand in creating a script that follows the movie closely.

In all, it’s clear how Zaxby’s embraced this connective marketing approach. There’s POP and merchandising in-store. “For our guests, they see it on TV, they see it on social media,” Bulger says. “They come into the store and see it on the POP and even on the drink machine. Then it all links together.”


Bulger says Zaxby’s “probably went through 75” movies to find the three it chose this year, and wanted to pick movies that aligned with its customer base and ethos.“We really are trying to link experiences with our brand. And make our brand relevant and interesting and engaging,” he says. “We’ve been working really hard over the last two years to not change the brand, because the brand was in such a good place, but just to pivot it and take it down this path of it’s more than just great food. It’s also about great experiences and great partnerships.”

Brand vitals for Zaxby’s

Unit count

  • 2018: 898
  • 2017: 890
  • 2016: 816
  • 2015: 725
  • 2014: 660

U.S. systemwide sales (in millions)

  • 2018: $1,850.00
  • 2017: $2,091.50         
  • 2016: $1,891.98
  • 2015: $1,576.4
  • 2014: $2,030.0

Average-unit volume (in thousands)

  • 2018: $2,060.00
  • 2017: $2,350.00
  • 2016: $2,318.60
  • 2015: $2,174.3           
  • 2014: $1,257.5

Another, less national version of this strategy unfolded throughout the fall in what Zaxby’s labeled the “Insane Music Tour.” The brand connected with country artist Jordan Rager and had him travel to cities, performing free 30-minute concerns inside restaurants. Zaxby’s said at the time Rager would be the first performer in a new entertainment series featuring various artists.

Bulger says the chain really just wanted to see how guests would respond.

Rager went to Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Georgia. The brand set up meet and greets with radio and TV stations, and got the community out.

Again, this was building off the guidepost that Zaxby’s customers crave experiences, Bulger says.

“If you come into a Zaxby’s and there’s live music, does that make your experience even better?” he says. “And from the research that we did following it, it does. It’s exciting and it’s something nobody is really doing right now.”

“So, we’re going to continue to look for ways and test things that we’ll associate our brand with that are a little bit more interesting, edgy, and more engaging than what a lot of brands are trying.”

Naturally, the concert series was an effective entry point for light users. Some fans followed Rager to stores, whether they were current Zaxby’s customers or not. It got them through the door to showcase what Bulger says is a more dynamic and evolving menu than many chains in its sector. (Zaxby’s is a big proponent of LTOs in a time when some restaurants are reducing promotions in favor of core focus, less complexity, and value constructs over products).

The brand also tried to position these events in college towns, like Athens and the University of Georgia—Bulger’s alma mater—in mid-October. “We recognize that a lot of our audience does skew kind of into that age group and so if you combine live music and younger folks who love hand-breaded, high quality products, right? Then you give them a free concert in a restaurant that they already love, it’s the perfect recipe,” Bulger says.

Additionally, Zaxby’s got involved in esports this year with sponsorships in the Overwatch League and Collegiate Starleague.

Regarding the chicken wars in general right now, namely Chick-fil-A and Popeyes sparring on social media, Bulger says the brand is “a little more relaxed” than its major competitors and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Yet expect Zaxby’s to get even more on the marketing front foot in coming months as it builds out its store count—the brand opened 12 restaurants since February. More national media and another movie (Bulger couldn’t say which one) are on deck.

Returning to the LTO point, however, Bulger says it’s an essential flag for Zaxby’s to plant in the ground to gain share. And the increased messaging will complement that.

“We’re introducing new products every year,” he says. “New news isn’t only great to drive new guests, people who said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Zaxby’s did a product like that,’ but also for our current guests. If you come every week or twice a week you might want to come one more time and say, ‘wow, I’d love to try that new thing.’”

Bulger says Zaxby’s is at a “great place growth wise,” and has some franchisees engaged who have been with the brand since the outset. At the end of 2018, only 141 of the chain’s 898 restaurants were corporate run.

“They really know and understand the brand and so it’s this combination of I created this national calendar that has new products and core products and we put it out with these meaningful messages and associations and partnerships,” Bulger says. “And then on a local level they really try to engage with their communities and be that connection point for families and millennials and all the folks that love our brand.”

“We’ll definitely have much more in 2020,” he adds. “We’ll definitely have a much larger national exposure. It’ll be great for the brand because it will continue to expose more and more markets, and more and more people to Zaxby’s.”

Fast Casual, Marketing & Promotions, Web Exclusives, Zaxby's