How Chicken Sandwiches Became Today’s Air Jordans

    What does the Popeyes craze show us about quick-service restaurant marketing?
    Chicken sandwich with mac and cheese.

    Unsplash/Blake Guidry

    The quick-service restaurant marketing world has always been one that leads on innovation

    If you were alive in the 1980s and engaged with pop culture even in the slightest the origins of the Nike Air Jordan sneaker will ring familiar. In 1984, when then-rookie Michael Jordan stepped onto the court in his non-regulation, NBA rules-defying black and red Nike hightops, he created a minor controversy that ultimately became the stuff of legend and set off a nationwide scramble among fans to own the “censored” shoe of the young phenom. In keeping with its reputation for marketing genius, Nike, of course, played up the controversy setting off a run on the shoes and a flurry of news reports of people robbed for the coveted kicks. Sneaker culture was thus born and the era of “drops” began.

    Who could have predicted that a similar drama would play out in 2019 over a fried chicken sandwich? But it did, just a few months ago when Popeye’s initially released its wildly popular and now infamous chicken sandwich. There were reports of people waiting in lines for hours, stores ran out, people complained loudly, and workers put in long hours to keep up with the demand for over 1,000 sandwiches a day at some of the restaurant’s locations.

    That’s just what happened offline—there was also the online phenomenon. Millions posted pics and millions more liked and shared them. Even the official Twitter accounts of Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s mixed it up: a post by Chick-fil-A that said "Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the <3 for the original" was met with a sarcastic “y'all good?" from Popeye’s that, according to CNN, resulted in close to 87,000 retweets, 324,000 likes and a plethora of memes and cry-laugh emojis. The great chicken sandwich war of 2019 spurred passionate partisanship on all sides online.

    So what does this have to do with Air Jordans? Quick-serves are in a sense appropriating “drop” marketing techniques most famously used by sneaker and streetwear brands like Nike and their competitors. By taking inspiration from drop culture with its emphasis on scarcity, digital hype, and surprise, quick-service restaurant brands like Popeye’s are creating greater excitement and buzz—in stores and online—around their brand and products.

    Let's be clear: we’re not talking about “limited time offers” like McDonald’s McRib sandwich or everyone’s pumpkin-spiced whatever. Drops are not like that, they don’t adhere to any formal seasonal schedule; rather they “drop” without any warning. And the fact that there might supply problems is a potentially good thing because limited product drives the hype, particularly among younger consumers.

    So what drop marketing techniques can quick-serves embrace from today's smartest sneaker and streetwear fashion brands?

    Seed a launch selectively since the element of surprise is what Gen Z and Millenials love about drops. But be prepared to respond quickly if the product captures the cultural imagination in the way that Popeye’s sandwich did this year.

    Geographic limits can work to your advantage. Having a product only available in certain stores or in certain regions of the country can drive interest and increase demand, and may even spawn hardcore fans to cross state lines to buy your product, (and if you’re lucky, post about it on social media).

    Create exclusivity. Drops can be a complete surprise to everyone, or they can be a complete surprise to almost everyone. Sneaker culture is renowned for effectively using their app or opt-in text/email lists to let get the word out about new products and exclusive offers to their most diehard fans, who in turn generate buzz organically from the ground up.

    The quick-service restaurant marketing world has always been one that leads on innovation. Food, like sneakers and streetwear, is a passion category for younger consumers, so brands are wise to look back to the Air Jordan and the culture it inspired for marketing inspiration.

    With a little luck maybe they’ll run out of their own proverbial chicken sandwich.

    Liz Aviles is the Vice President of Market Intelligence at Upshot, a Chicago-based marketing agency. Identifying insights and crafting strategy at the intersection of culture and commerce, she has worked across a variety of categories including retail, technology, CPG, fashion and home. Past and current restaurant industry experience includes strategic work on Subway and Starbucks. Her annual trend report identifies connections across the marketplace and culture that indicate shifts in consumers' attitudes, values, and behaviors, shifts that can fuel strong consumer relationships and loyalty for Upshot’s clients.