The “chicken war” in quick-service restaurants (QSR) has been raging on for years now, with several major chains vying for the top spot in the chicken sandwich market. The competition has been fierce, with companies investing heavily in marketing campaigns, product development, and distribution networks to gain an edge over their rivals. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the chicken war in QSR and what it means for the industry as consumers are now trading down on their dining out.

The Origins of the Chicken War
The origins of the chicken war took shape in 2019 when Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen released its now-iconic chicken sandwich. After a few Sothern charm tweets with competitor Chick-fil-A, Popeyes sandwich quickly became a viral sensation, with people lining up for hours to get their hands on one. The popularity of the sandwich caught the attention of other QSR chains, who saw an opportunity to tap into the growing demand for chicken sandwiches. The crave for chicken was already abound but this new effort catapulted chicken in the QSR space.

Since then, companies have all released their own takes and continued evolutions on the chicken sandwich. Each chain has tried to differentiate its product by highlighting unique flavors, ingredients, or preparation methods. For example, Chick-fil-A, whose sandwich existed well before the chicken war, began to promote how its sandwich features a breaded chicken breast seasoned with a blend of spices and served on a toasted buttered bun. Meanwhile, McDonald’s launched its Crispy Chicken Sandwich, which features a chicken fillet coated in a crispy breading and topped with pickles and a buttered bun. Various healthy alternatives also entered the market with grilled chicken instead of fried.

The Impact on the Industry
The chicken war has had a significant impact on the QSR industry, with some chains reporting record sales and profits thanks to their chicken sandwich offerings. For some, 2019 saw 40%+ increase in same store sales prior to Covid, all of which was lost during Covid. Several brands like Chick Fil A recovered those percentage points by expanding offerings with delivery, curbside, and app options while others like Popeye’s and KFC are still climbing back.
However, the chicken war has also led to increased competition and pressure for brands to innovate. Chains are investing heavily in marketing campaigns, loyalty/rewards programs, and product development to try and gain an edge over their rivals. This has resulted in a flurry of new menu items, promotions, and limited time offers, all aimed at attracting customers and boosting sales. For consumers though, it’s not just about the offers; it’s also about the experience.

Even though customers are trading down and seeking out more value deals, it’s not just about taste and food preference. Customer service remains a top value priority for consideration and QSRs are being held to higher standards to deliver on the experience which will bring customers back.

The Future of the Chicken War
So, what does the future hold for the chicken war in QSR? It’s hard to say for sure, but one thing is clear: the competition shows no signs of slowing down. As long as there is demand for chicken and chicken sandwiches, chains will continue to invest ad dollars in this market segment and compete for market share. Therefore, campaign strategy, creative messaging, customer value and overall experience will be the differentiating factors. Using the right media channels with proper timing and spend will be critical to managing performance with YOY growth against continued economic shifts.

In the coming years, we may see new players enter the market and existing chains continue to innovate and improve their offerings. However, it’s also possible that we may see some chains decide to pivot away from chicken sandwiches and focus on other or alternative menu items instead.

Overall, the chicken war in QSR has been a fascinating case study in the power of viral marketing and the impact of competition on the industry. Only time will tell how the competition will evolve and which chains will come out on top, but one thing is certain: chicken sandwiches will remain a staple of QSR menus for the foreseeable future.

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