The following is excerpted from a speech I delivered last week at the Elevate Summit, hosted by the Local Media Association and the Local Media Consortium. The conference brought together publishers from local news organizations looking to identify new and sustainable business models.
I’m not here to make the business case for inclusion.
If you don’t know that inclusion is good business by now, then you’re probably in the wrong room and most certainly in the wrong profession.
I’m here to talk about how valuing inclusion will make you a better publisher, provide a better, more relevant news product and ensure your news coverage and your news organization reflects the community in which it is located. Which, of course, helps your bottom line.
But first, I have a question: How many of you heard about all the hoopla last month surrounding Popeye’s new chicken sandwich? Were you able to buy one before they ran out?
Now, I know what you’re thinking…. What’s a chicken sandwich have to do with journalism, let alone inclusion and equity. Just give me a few minutes before passing judgment.
The juggernaut phenomenon that became the Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich craze first started when Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Popeye’s Chicken, took note of a story that hadn’t gotten much coverage beyond activist circles and some publications in tune with younger people– younger people engaged with the world around them and hungry for social change. That story centers around young people — young people of color and those in the LGBTQ community in particular — who are often ignored and underserved by mainstream media. For months, these young people, prized by marketers across the globe, had been deploying a quiet protest that had been building steam against Popeye’s biggest competitor, chicken sandwich king Chick-Fil-A. You see, these young people don’t like Chick-Fil-A’s founder’s socio-political views, especially those views pertaining to same-sex marriage. For months, these young people have been vowing not to spend their money at Chick-Fil-A because of these views. Popeye’s not only identified and recognized this niche market, but they also responded to the quiet movement by giving these young people an alternative. And they did so without taking a position on the issue itself. Some journalists might call that “objectivity.”
After Popeye’s identified a gap in the market, it came up with a plan and a product to fill that gap. Nothing special, just a regular old chicken sandwich, that also comes in spicy. Popeye’s then strategically collaborated with key restaurants to debut its new sandwich. The new sandwiches were offered exclusively only to a select number of restaurant partners. Popeye’s even reached out to a potential hater, a fancy restaurant that had, in the past, passed off the fast-food giant’s fried chicken for its own, charging twice what Popeye’s charged for it. The owner of the fancy restaurant, a hater, vlogged about the sandwich, grabbing attention for her business and Popeye’s. The collaboration demonstrated that this just wasn’t some random, bland fast-food item, nor was it some stunt parachuting into the chicken sandwich world and then parachuting back out. Chick-Fil-A marketed the sandwich as a filling, substantive meal with staying power.
In addition to collaborating, Popeye’s tapped into the power of social media to help them tell and share the narrative of their new sandwich. In telling the story, Popeye’s stayed out of the way and let the storytellers share and tell the story of the sandwich experience in their own voices and words. It became a viral sensation.
Not only did Popeye’s take into account the power of influencers, more specifically, but they also tapped into the power of Black Twitter, leveraging that power to start a phenomenon which resulted in more than $65 million in free advertising, $23 million from Black Twitter alone, according to news reports. It also resulted in Popeye’s selling more than 1,000 chicken sandwiches a day doubling store traffic and enabling Popeye’s to win the chicken sandwich war.
- Popeye’s identified a part of the market that is currently being underserved or not served at all and set about engaging with this community, meeting them where they are.
- Popeye’s built upon a legacy business product and made it appealing to younger customers.
- Popeye’s reflected values that resonated with these customers in a way that wasn’t disrespectful or dismissive of others. In other words, they remained “objective” but responsive.
- Popeye’s identified important, strategic partners to help craft its narrative around and about its new chicken sandwich. Even potential haters joined in telling the story.
- Popeye’s recognized that it couldn’t just parachute into an existing community, telling them what stories would be told, nor did Popeye’s dictate how the communities stories would be told.
- Popeye’s recognized the power of social media and leveraged the tried-and-true word of mouth relationships on these social platforms, tapping into the trust factor inherent within communities that already exist on these platforms. Popeye’s also entrusted some of these trusted voices to tell their chicken sandwich stories/experiences in their own voices and, yes, memes. In other words, Popeye’s got out of the way, allowing these young people to tell their Popeye’s stories authentically.
Now, some of you are saying, “Tracie, when it comes to the pecking order, journalism is no chicken sandwich.” <Pun intended>
I agree. Journalism is much more important. But we can take these lessons from how Popeye’s sold a bunch of chicken sandwiches to figure out how to make and sell better, more inclusive news coverage that’s truly reflective of the communities we serve. You may not get millions of free advertising, or maybe not even millions in new revenue. But you might get 1,000 more unique visitors a day or even 1,000 more subscriptions.
After all, isn’t that why we’re here.