Marketers on Fire: Popeyes CMO Bruno Cardinali

Posted on by Kaylee Hultgren

Popeyes may have started the chicken wars back in the summer of 2019, but now it means to end them. Sort of. The QSR brand, whose chicken sandwich became a massive sensation when it launched two years ago, dropped a new product last month—chicken nuggets—as a declaration of peace and an “end” to the chicken wars.

The campaign’s cheeky tagline, “We come in piece. 8 piece,” accompanied by the image of a white flag of surrender (with a nugget in the middle), leverages the chicken wars to insert itself into the conversation once again.

We spoke with Popeyes CMO Bruno Cardinali about the multifaceted marketing campaign, how the brand drives engagement with gamification, its new loyalty marketing program and the importance of creating authentic brand experiences for consumers. Plus, he dishes on what skills marketers should hone if they have ambitions to join the C-suite.

Chief Marketer: What are the ways in which you are marketing the new product launch in terms of channels, tactics and strategy?

Bruno Cardinali: Nuggets is something that we’ve been working on and investing the time to perfect in the past few months and even a year ago. It’s something we were lacking on our menu. We launched the chicken sandwich two years ago and we then went into tackling the next one in line, which was chicken nuggets. So now we’re very excited to be bringing the nuggets to the whole market to our fans.

We’re going to be supporting that whole campaign across different channels. So we’re going to have a full plan of media and creative assets running through TV, digital and we have some radio buys as well in a few markets. We’re going to be running some billboards in Times Square. There are a lot of different touchpoints from a media perspective. And then also at the floor level, that’s when we engage with our guests on a one-on-one basis. We’re planning different local activations, tasting events and making sure that we get those nuggets to everyone so they can try them.

CM: So sampling events are a big part of your strategy?

BC: Sampling is done at a local level. We normally don’t plan for national sampling campaigns, but we do partner with different franchises in different markets and then run some sampling events. It happens on an ad hoc basis with our local partners. Normally franchises hold these events in their restaurants, or they partner with any existing events that might be happening in their city. The whole sampling initiative is a piece of the plan, but we’re focused on the TV campaign, the radio, the billboards and everything else at a national level.

CM: Why did you choose to address the chicken wars specifically?

BC: When we launched the chicken sandwich, we received an incredible of love and positive reviews. We were really humbled to see how our fans reacted, but at the same time many claimed that it started the chicken wars. So we’re taking that cultural movement, if you like, the debate of who has the best chicken sandwich in the market, and playing with that and saying, look, many people say that we started the wars, but now it’s time to say goodbye to the chicken wars, because this time we come in peace—8 piece, to be exact.

We felt it was a good way to leverage something that is still quite strong in organic conversation, social media and media in general and infuse our brand, tone of voice, our brand personality, in a way that’s making a light statement about that whole conversation and putting the brand at the center of the chicken conversation. It plays with something that has been relevant in the industry for the past two years, and puts the nuggets innovation at the center of the conversation because of the analogy between “peace” and the pieces that we sell.

CM: Do you really plan on ending the wars or is this just a step along the way?

BC: We truly believe that there’s space for everyone. Everyone loves to share food and give recommendations about a good restaurant that you have in your neighborhood or that you visited. I don’t think that debate will ever end because it it’s human nature—loving food and the experiences around food. It was a good way to market and to position nuggets at the center of the story and bring our personality and our tone of voice to life in a way that is very authentic to Popeyes.

CM: This campaign has a strong charitable component. Can you talk about the strategy behind that and why it was important for this campaign?

BC: As part of the campaign, we are purchasing one million nuggets from our fellow QSR brands, including our own, and donating them to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater Louisiana. We are happy with that way of bringing the story to life but also helping those in need. We’re inviting fans and guests that want to participate to also donate, so it’s something that we’re trying to make as inclusive as possible and insert some good into this whole conversation other than just the creative. We wanted to include all the different QSR brands in the mix as a sign of a saying goodbye to the chicken wars and spreading the love.

CM: When it comes to using social media as a brand overall to create buzz and trolling competitors, can you talk about how Popeyes has used the channel over the years and been successful at it?

BC: I joined the brand in early 2019. When immersing myself in Popeyes, the very first thing was a trip to New Orleans to understand the roots of the brand, the place that we come from. But alongside the full journey, you get to understand how much people love Popeyes. It’s something that really stood out to me, the amount of love and how dedicated and how passionate our fans are. So with that in mind, we’ve been developing a whole social media strategy to revisit our brand positioning, our tone of voice, our personality as a brand and how we would behave in that social media environment. We have really passionate fans who love to engage and talk about Popeyes. They love to interact with us and help fuel the conversation. It’s something that we stay on top of basically every single second. So, monitoring anything that might pop up in pop culture that we feel can make sense for us to be part of or start different conversations across the industry.

CM: How important are experiences to your marketing strategy?

BC: Experiential is an important pillar of our plan. We’re proud to sponsor and support the Wine and Food Festival here in South Beach, Miami, to get Popeyes in the hands of foodies and chefs, because we’re really proud of the food that we serve and the quality and the work that goes behind it. Our food culinary team here works really hard and does an incredible job of designing product and formulating the recipes.

We also served Popeyes at a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover reveal. We had a bunch of influencers at the event that were able to taste the product [ahead of time]. We try to infuse the brand into those specific events that bring our culinary credentials to life. Those two past events were quite important and we saw very good traction in terms of conversation and engagement around Popeyes.

CM: Talk about the role of gamification in your marketing initiatives.

BC: We’ve seen the popularity of gamification rise in the past few years. We try to bring that to life through our app that we launched two and a half years ago. In September of 2020, we launched a campaign with Dr Pepper called Love That Game during football season. They would get a promotional code that could be used in the Popeyes app for a chance to redeem some offers and enter a sweepstakes. And we just finished another campaign with gamification called Summer Road Trip. Guests could search for a destination in the Popeyes app and get a digital offer. We continue to look for more opportunities to infuse and embed more gaming and gamification into our app experience.

CM: How do loyalty programs factor into your marketing strategy?

BC: Our loyalty program is very new. We just launched Popeyes Rewards in June. It’s the first-ever loyalty program for Popeyes so we’re super excited to have that live for our fans. The program allows us to return the love to our fans with exclusive deals, celebrations, experiences and swag, and a bunch of different ways to engage with our guests. We’ve been seeing some very good traction in terms of adoption and using the program. We see a big opportunity for us in the future, as we continue to grow the base of users and then leveraging it for future results. So it’s something that we’ve been starting to promote and embrace in every single campaign that we do.

CM: What are the marketing trends that you’re keeping an eye on right now?

BC: You touched on gamification, but also esports. It’s something that grew a lot in the past year, but I think it’s still something that not every single brand has cracked—how to insert themselves into that space. I sense a small change in how people interact with brands these days. People are seeking for more authentic, genuine brand experiences and stories and product offerings. Going back to the basics, in my opinion, is a trend that is becoming really important. Consumers are paying attention to the details, paying attention to whatever product or service that you offer, making sure that you walk the talk, that you don’t just say something but that you actually do what you’re saying. I think it is beneficial for the industry and for all of us.

CM: Talk about some skills that marketers who hope to be CMOs one day need to master in today’s business landscape.

BC: Digital is an important skillset to have. And everything to do with ecommerce, social media and performance media. The landscape is growing a lot and evolving almost constantly. There are a lot of changes, especially in the media landscape. The other thing is building teams. The more you go up the ladder, the more you have to have good people, being able to search and hire them as well as nurturing and developing the people that you have on the team. The last one is more of a soft skill, but it’s the ability to create a vision and agenda and bring everyone along. The best marketers that I’ve seen are the ones that were able to join the brand, join the team, immerse themselves in what the brand stands for, create a dream for the brand and bring everyone along for the journey.

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