Popeye's: Back to New Orleans

"We've got to change and evolve with the times, and we're definitely doing that," says Tom Whitley, chief marketing officer at Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits. "We offer different things to our customers than we did in 1972. The brand is much more complicated and sophisticated." At the core, he says, "Great-tasting New Orleans-style flavored foods will always be part of what we do."

Whitley, who joined Popeye's in 1997, says the company went through about three years of trying to redefine the brand as Cajun but found that too limiting. "It's really about the flavor heritage of New Orleans, which includes Cajun, but also Creole and other flavors. We're in the process of changing that. We're not trying to lose Cajun, but make it a component of what we do," he says.

"We're looking to keep with our New Orleans heritage," says Diane Phibbs, director of business development. "It's a huge point of difference for our customers, as well as our franchisees."

Big changes are under way at Popeye's: new menu items, new look, new packaging, new uniforms, new ad agency, and beefed up infrastructure and support systems. "We're in the process of changing all our internal and external brand communication to reflect our New Orleans style and new attitude," says Whitley.

The effort, launched in first quarter 2004, is "heavily into the first phase," says Whitley. Graphics are all being changed, too, with all but the signs completed by June or July. "We hope to have it all done by end of the year," he says.

"We certainly have a very strong brand message and are working hard to refine it in everything we do. Our key message is: flavor superiority," says Whitley. As he sees it, where Popeye's is "flavor-oriented," KFC is "service-oriented" and Church's "value-oriented."

In its move to redirect and rejuvenate the brand, Popeye's has involved its franchisees through its Menu Advisory Council and Marketing Advisory Council. Of Popeye's approximately 1,700 locations, only about 100 domestically are company restaurants, run as "model markets" in Atlanta and New Orleans.
Extreme Makeover?

Recently, Popeye's found itself in an interesting situation: it couldn't sell franchises because parent company AFC Enterprises ordered up a restatement of 2000 to 2002 earnings. When its UFOC expired, Popeye's couldn't refile until the process was complete. "We couldn't sell franchises because we were restating our earnings," says Phibbs. The bad news was the company couldn't sell franchises. The good news was this was an ideal opportunity to reflect and redirect, and position the system for future brand growth.

"We decided to wait until we had our 2003 earnings," says Phibbs. "We went back and looked at how to sell. We looked at every department in our organization, and how we could add value to our existing franchisees and make ourselves more attractive to potential franchisees."

Internal changes included reevaluating the field support team and adding nearly 30 field positions in the next 12 months. Popeye's also is bolstering (or creating anew) in the areas of franchise consultants, store opening staff, regional marketing support, real estate, construction, and field-based trainers, and adding a new compliance position.

"Consumers tell us they love Popeye's because of the menu, the food items. They would forgive us for some of our 'sins' in the area of cleanliness or service. But if you've got some poorly performing restaurants, they reach a point where they won't forgive you any more. They won't come back." The new compliance officer and enhanced training is intended to address this and provide brand consistency throughout the franchise.

"We're looking to improve the consumer experience," says Phibbs. "In a highly competitive environment where people are looking for the best value for their money, we don't have a dollar menu, but we do have great food. We're looking to give them great food with the optimum customer experience. That's the way we're going to get our customers coming back."

Eddy Goldberg is a business and technology writer from Amherst, MA.

Published: July 9th, 2004

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