The Chicken Sandwich Wars: Who’s Winning and What We Can Learn

In 2019, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen released a sandwich that created a media frenzy and sold out chicken sandwiches all over the nation. Their famous redesigned sandwich led to other big brands in fast food launching their own sandwiches to compete.

Two years later, “the chicken sandwich wars” are still in full throttle with chains such as McDonalds and KFC still entering the contest in 2021.

Focusing on the five biggest players: Popeyes, McDonalds, KFC, Wendys, and Zaxby’s, this analysis hopes to determine a current winner to the sandwich wars as well as an analysis of what they did differently. It also hopes to identify gaps for improvement for future business to bring a newer greater sandwich to the market.

From a consumer standpoint, the importance is pretty straight-forward. Understanding which sandwich is deemed “the best” by general sentiment will help all of us make a better decision about our next meal. :)

From a fast-food businesses perspective, as we’ll see, creating media attention has massive implications on the revenues made by the business. Understanding what makes the winner better (through topic analysis and an inspection of the effect of media frenzy) as well as where they are better will help new competitors differentiate and bring their own chicken sandwich to the table.

Finally, in a similar vain from from the fast-food business’ perspective, this analysis is useful so investors can have a better idea of how and when to invest in a chain restaurant that may potentially enter the sandwich wars or something similar in the future.

Key Questions:

1. From the consumers perspective, which chain is winning the chicken sandwich wars? Which sandwich is underrated? Where are they winning?
2. What makes a certain sandwich successful to consumers?
3. Does sandwich trendiness predict/correlate with stock prices? If so, how?
4. Overall winner?

With that being said, let’s start by trying to address the first key question. How are consumers responding to major releases of new sandwiches?

Analyzing google search trends as a starting point, we get the following:

Each spike above visually shows the approximate attention surrounding the launch of their sandwich. From this point of view, it looks like we have a clear winner here: a lot of people are searching for the Popeye’s chicken sandwich. More importantly, for two full years, the sandwich had taken the spotlight until competitors such as McDonald’s had their own release in 2021.

Still, it seems important to rank our remaining competitors without Popeye’s skewing the graph.

From here, we can see that — if we use the highest peak as an indication of largest impact— then KFC comes in second, followed by McDonalds, Wendys, and finally Zaxby’s.

Although national popularity is a great predictor of which sandwich may be the most promising, it may be unfair since certain chains have significantly different numbers of chain restaurants. If we instead factor over the number of franchises available, we get an entirely different insight:

The lower the number of franchises and greater the search implies that this sandwich was extremely prevalent in the locations where they are set up. Here, it’s clearer that even though McDonald’s had nearly the same popularity as KFC, KFC’s popularity was much concentrated since it had fewer locations for word to spread. A key limitation is that this popularity metric is entirely relative so doing a one-to-one comparison with franchise units may not be fair since we don’t have the true number of searches.

Finally, focusing on the popularity by states, we can see the following trends:

Note that this graph simply shows where a chain received most of their feedback for their sandwich. The color of the state implies a chain succeeded more here in comparison to their competitors. Finally, the blank states mean that no chain’s sandwich trended significantly in those areas.

We see that in general, McDonald is winning in terms of balance nationally, while locations like Zaxby’s or Popeye’s are exclusively get their fame in the south east/south. But most importantly, this drives an insight that there are still regions that are severely unsaturated from all competitors.

Although we didn’t factor in population density, if a chain had locations in the above franchises, then launching a competitive chicken sandwich could meet an unmet demand and beat their competition.

In addition to looking at the overall popularity of each sandwich, analyzing their sentiment is also crucial to understanding their popularity.

A basic sentiment analysis was taken scraping tweet data from approximately 5000 tweets. From the above, we can see that although Zaxby’s was the least trendy item, it has the greatest support among those who have tried it. Thus, from a consumer’s perspective, Zaxby’s is the underrated sandwich that you should try if available in your area.

To bring insights into what this sandwich different, we can took a look at the contents of these tweets more carefully:

As shown from the word cloud, if we take a close up on the specific content in these tweets, we can see that many people seem to really enjoy the sauce, and their spicy version of the sandwich. From a business perspective, future sandwiches could consider investing more into the sauce over the chicken patty itself.

Similarly, looking at the sandwich from the least liked chain — McDonald’s — we can also get a better idea what should’ve been done instead.

As before, many people seemed to really like the spicy aspect, but felt more compelled to compare their sandwich against their previous hits i.e. Buttermilk Crispy Sandwich or their competitors. Additionally unclear is whether the crispiness of the sandwich is a positive or a negative for McDonald’s. Since other words such as fried, and patty appear here as opposed to the Zaxby’s word-cloud, this could be an indication that McDonald’s patty isn’t up to par.

Altogether, we learn that for new competitors trying to produce a great sandwich, it’s recommended they excel in producing a crispy chicken patty and a great spicy sauce. It’s also important that they differentiate as much as possible from Popeyes since no matter who else is competing, Popeye’s seems to be the point of comparison.

So far, we’ve basically pinpointed the winners of the sandwich from the consumers perspective. But which chain won the most from this battle? Is it worth entering the competition?

Let’s start with the second question first. Using their launch dates as a point of reference, let’s identify if there was any correlation between the sandwich’s launch and their stock performance. To adjust for delays between launch and fame, we’ll use their gtrends popularity hits to estimate their “true launch date”.

The correlation between hits and stock price is listed below for four of our five points of comparison (Zaxby’s is not publicly traded) for the month they launched their sandwich.

Popeyes: 0.534

McDonald’s: -0.399

Wendy’s: -0.379

KFC: 0.424

A positive correlation implies that greater popularity leads to greater stock valuation. From the above, we actually learn a lot about how each competitor fared from an investors point of view.

  1. Some companies stock prices actually went up as a result of entering the sandwich wars, but other didn’t or displayed no change. If we look back at the sentiment scores, those that had higher sentiment had higher returns than those that didn’t. Wendy’s and McDonald’s suffered from the entering the wars unlike Popeye’s and KFC.
  2. There’s high variability and no clear prediction of what would happen if a chain enter’s with their own sandwich.

As an investor, this is useful since unless there is good knowledge that a brand’s sandwich may succeed, investing in these companies may be a gamble. Additionally, as a chain owner, the risks of losing the war are not small, and regardless of when you arrive (KFC and McDonald’s are both 2021 releases), there is a fair chance of media and stock backlash.

In terms of choosing a winner, it’s clear Popeye’s and KFC came through with their sandwich and Wendy’s and McDonald’s still have work to do.

Conclusion

So who won the chicken wars? From a consumer standpoint, Popeyes won both the media frenzy, retained a lot of sentiment even two years after their sandwich release, and their sandwich pleased investors and their own pockets. However, the Zaxby’s chicken sandwich wins the underrated chicken sandwich award with the most positive sentiment and well-talked about sauce. (Side note: my favorite among the list is actually Zaxby’s for those exact reasons)

From the food chain’s perspective, we learned how influential entering a food battle can be, with Popeye’s remaining a trending topic for nearly two years after their sandwich release. We also learned that two important items a sandwich needs to focus in order to garner media attention are their sauce and patty crispiness.

Finally, including the investor’s perspective, we learned that entering the battle in 2021 can still please investors although an average sandwich with okay sentiment can actually negatively impact the chain and the valuation.

Thank you to the following data sources for this product:

  • Tweet data from Twitter API
  • Search data from Google search trends
  • Stock data from Yahoo stock trends (using the QuantMod R package)

CS @ University of Pennsylvania