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A Game of Chicken

Social Media Jockeying Made Popeyes’ Sandwich a Viral Sensation. A UMD Marketing Expert Explains How.

By Sala Levin ’10

Sandwich collage

Photos courtesy of (from left) Chick-fil-A, Popeye's and Wendy's.

Popeyes' new effort to go bun to bun with Chick-fil-A (left) and Wendy's (right) launched a Twitter frenzy last week. "They nailed it in terms of product," said Hank Boyd, clinical professor of marketing.

If you’ve been on social media over the last week, you know: The feathers have been flying.

Popeyes on Aug. 12 tweeted about its new chicken sandwich, which might have gone relatively unnoticed. Then a Twitter war broke out between the chain and its competitors, including Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s and Shake Shack. With all that squawking, it’s perhaps no wonder that lines snaked out the door at franchises across the country, and TV news stations were airing reports about locations where the sandwiches had sold out. A Maryland man was even selling one of the precious entrees last week for $100 (plus shipping!), according to Washingtonian magazine.

Hank Boyd, clinical professor in the Robert H. Smith School of Business’ marketing department, said on Friday that this kind of corporate squabbling on social media can contribute to the goal of winning hearts and minds—and stomachs. Here are some of his key takeaways:

  • It has to start with genuine excitement. Corporations can’t “steer the conversation” or make magic if people don’t love a product, Boyd said. “In a perfect world, yes, every company would love to know, ‘What is the tinder I have to put in to ignite the fire?’ … Normally what happens is it sparks with the consumers.” Word had been spreading on Twitter about Popeyes’ sandwich before the corporate tweets started, suggesting a grassroots enthusiasm for the meal.
  • Drama works. Chick-fil-A had long dominated in fast-food chicken sandwiches, and may have been caught off-guard by the interest in Popeyes’ version. “If you get complacent, that brass ring can be taken from you,” said Boyd. “A competitor can come along and have another great offer and boom, suddenly you’ve lost it. That ongoing drama is what it’s all about in business.”
  • Take advantage of people’s fear of missing out. “FOMO is pervasive in this scenario,” said Boyd. The lines, the sold-out signs, the tweets: all of it contributed to a sense of urgency for the consumers.
  • Don’t be desperate. Thirst—as the Internet is putting it these days—is a turn-off. “How far can a brand go without being seen as pushy or a little inane, where it seems like they’re desperate?” asks Boyd. “You don’t ever want to have that smack of desperation.” Or, as Popeyes put it in a sassy tweet directed at Wendy’s: “Sounds like someone just ate one of our biscuits. Cause y’all looking thirsty.”




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