It hasn’t quite been three years since chief executive Joe Christina ignited his turnaround plan at Church’s Chicken. The former EVP of U.S. operations and Burger King SVP stepped into the role November 2017. He set this guidepost from the outset: Become the global franchisor of choice.

That North Star positioning had no shortage of tendrils to it, including reshaping Church’s executive team, updating marketing, store designs, brand appeal, and rethinking where its menu fit into the crowded value and quality debate of quick-service chicken. Perhaps the biggest move for the legacy operation, founded in 1952, was an ambitious brand refresh announced earlier in the spring. This included the new tagline, “Bringin’ That Down Home Flavor,” and fine-tuning its international Texas Chicken segment. Much of the latter initiative revolved around image, from a reworked logo to updated prototypes that amplify the chain’s roots. The domestic program is more of an update than a re-image effort.


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In mid-July, Church’s said it was seeing “unprecedented sales and transaction growth.” The momentum was fueled by a new, fully integrated marketing campaign for the relaunch of one of its most-popular limited-time offers in brand history, Bourbon Black Pepper Smokehouse Chicken

During the first half of the promotion, Church’s same-store sales bumped 4.2 percent, and recent transaction growth was commensurate. And Church’s said the results lapped strong performance in the prior-year period. In fact, to that point, Church’s customer counts were positive year-to-date, sparking green same-store sales performance in 14 of the previous 17 weeks.

Church’s said some of its ultra-competitive chicken markets, like the Carolinas, Atlanta, Chicago, and New Orleans, witnessed double-digit comp sales and traffic, with more than 100 Smokehouse Chickens being ordered in the average restaurant daily.

The big driver: Church’s fresh advertising campaign for the product rated No. 1 among fried chicken brands year-to-date when compared against other brands’ commercials during the same period, according to Ace Metrix.

Church’s “Bringin’ That Down Home Flavor” push showcased a renewed and contemporary look for Church’s. TV spots were shot in a test kitchen environment with close-up camera work highlighting ingredients and preparation.

The ads featuring Church’s Bourbon Black Pepper Smokehouse Chicken indexed at Ace Scores of 661, easily sailing the category norm of 583. Per the study, critical component scores for the TV run outperformed the quick-service restaurant and chicken category averages in attention, likeability, and desire to purchase.

Church’s said franchisees experienced record sales and traffic growth in response, even in markets that typically don’t receive media coverage. It pointed out one in particular where it said the media shifted consumer behavior. Noor Samji, a Phoenix multi-unit franchisee, said he typically doesn’t invest in media during the summer since sales dip in their hottest months. “We are now experiencing double-digit growth, and wouldn’t have known that to be possible during summer if we hadn’t changed our media strategy to drive awareness across all of our markets,” he said in a statement.

The national TV campaign was joined by an omni-channel approach, including radio and digital media. It’s being measured, Church’s said, by actualized in-store visits to allow for real time optimization and retargeting to reach each new potential guest with the right message at the right decision point.

Chief marketing officer Brian Gies took some time to chat with QSR about the campaign, why it’s been so successful to date, and how Church’s can springboard off this momentum and achieve long-term growth.

Exterior Of A Remodeled Church's Chicken Restaurant

If you could sum it up, why do you think the Smokehouse Chicken resonated so strongly with consumers?

There is simply nothing like it in the marketplace today. Smokehouse Chicken is marinated in a savory, smoky seasoning and then cooked for 18 minutes. It is then glazed again with our signature bourbon black pepper sauce which deepens all the unique flavor notes. We believe in value, and value with Smokehouse is that you are getting an incredible tasting chicken that you can’t find anywhere else, alongside mashed potatoes and a made-from-scratch honey butter biscuit for just $5. It just makes you hungry thinking about it.

As the company noted in the release, positive guest counts are a rare achievement in today’s industry, not just quick service. What are some ways Church’s has been able to generate traffic, despite all the headwinds brands are facing?

We began a mission to help guests rediscover us. We prioritized driving broader awareness and ownable differentiation, leading with our food. We set our chefs loose with new flavor profiles and invested in operations that improved our service times and customer satisfaction. Our franchisees supported our investments in innovation. Along the way, our team members became reenergized about the brand and our employees have carried the positive momentum every day.

Has the success of the Smokehouse Chicken platform surprised Church’s internally?

We knew that our guests loved Smokehouse Chicken. When we launched this platform previously, we received overwhelming positive guest feedback. Guests gave us permission to innovate around even more flavors, so we launched Bourbon Black Pepper. Guests couldn’t get enough of it and we actually ran out of it in some markets So, this year, we took a different approach and brought this fan-favorite craveable item back for an extended window. All of this has led to generating some of our best sales ever for an LTO product.

Talk about the TV campaign and why it’s been so effective. How did Church’s change its media strategy to drive awareness and inspire frequency? The chicken category is one of the most competitive there is, and clearly Church’s found a powerful lever.

This is a case of message meets medium. We married a great product message delivered in our new culinary-focused advertising campaign along with a fully integrated media plan that allowed us to be seen by more people in a variety of targeted, diverse formats. This has helped attract existing guests and introduce the brand to new guests.

Specifically, speak to the change in consumer behavior in Phoenix, where summer traffic typically lagged other seasons.

Typically, in particular markets like Phoenix during the summer where seasonality is low, we had historically experienced lower guest frequency. This year, the growth in transactions from Smokehouse Chicken is the key driver to markets like Phoenix, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and others through an enhanced media approach that has continued building momentum since we first launched earlier this summer.

Getting into the omni-channel approach, how did Church’s broaden its message to reach new guests as well as speak to loyal ones? What mediums have been particularly effective?

We implemented a new omni-channel approach with both broad reach vehicles like TV and radio, paired with highly targeted digital media. The digital media has been very effective in driving trackable “in-restaurant” visits which is how the campaign is measured and optimized over time. We are seeing who has been exposed to our digital ads and then how many messages and what messages trigger a visit. Then it’s repeat and optimize. The engagement from both digital and social channels has been above the brand average in multiple metrics. The goal is to ensure our message is in front of the guest when they are making a decision for lunch or dinner—whether they are at home or on the go.

So, what’s next for the brand now? How can Church’s springboard off this momentum and achieve long-term growth?

We have been in a growth period over the last few years and our momentum has continued to be very strong. What’s next is continuing that growth to become the Global Franchisor of Choice and continue to expand our presence. In fact, we are on track to open 70 new restaurants by the end of the year. We have found our voice with the new “Down Home” tagline and continue to find new and innovative ways to introduce new guests to the Church’s experience.

What’s the status of the brand refresh?

Guests are really starting to see who we are when it comes to our recently introduced marketing campaign, new packaging, and a new approach to uniforms currently in test. We continue to broaden access to our food through delivery, order ahead, and catering with the launch of the Church’s To Go platform. Stay tuned for more exciting news to come!

Fast Food, Marketing & Promotions, Menu Innovations, Story, Church's Chicken