Companies often use their Twitter handles to banter with each other. When Honda rolled out an in-car vacuum in 2013, it found itself sparring with Nature Valley about crumbs between seats. The Kit Kat and Oreo brands have also gone at it, as have Weetabix and Domino’s, which traded polite barbs about the most controversial foods.

These online interactions seem harmless, but they can get out of hand and have real consequences, according to University of Arkansas’s Ashutosh Bhave, University of Manitoba’s Harsha Kamatham, and University of North Carolina’s Norris I. Bruce. “Although social media can be effective for promoting new products through planned marketing campaigns, Twitter posts [that aren’t part of such campaigns] could go viral and have unintended effects on brand performance,” they write.

The researchers studied the case of the famous 2019 Twitter battle involving the fast-food chains Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy’s. It started when Popeyes used Twitter along with other traditional media to promote the launch of its new chicken sandwich, and Chick-fil-A responded with: “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the ❤️ for the original.” Popeyes replied the same day with, “. . . y’all good?” Then Wendy’s jumped in, tweeting: “Y’all out here fighting about which of these fools has the second best chicken sandwich,” and immediately got a befitting reply from Popeyes.

And so it went with a torrent of likes, retweets, and responses from followers. Traditional media outlets also picked up on the feud. Lines formed at Popeyes locations, many of which sold out of chicken sandwiches.

For their postmortem, the researchers obtained data from 45 million smartphone users in the United States, tracking hourly visits and weekly visitor counts to a variety of fast-food establishments from January 1, 2018, to February 29, 2020. They assessed store-level visits in both the week before and the week after the feud began. Their analysis suggests overall foot traffic—a proxy for sales—to Popeyes increased by 54 percent as a result of the feud.

After the banter started trending on Twitter, it was picked up by offline media including television and radio stations, as well as newspapers. That led back to a huge number of online searches, not only relating to the feud but also to where people could buy the sandwich that had kicked off the conversation. The researchers note that there was a 400 percent increase in Google searches for Popeyes, and a 2,500 percent rise in searches by people who indicated an intent to make a purchase.

However, there was no significant effect on search volume for Chick-fil-A or Wendy’s. Foot traffic to Chick-fil-A increased by just 5 percent, and visits to Wendy’s fell by about 3 percent.

Rivals gave Popeyes free publicity

Responding to a tweet by Popeyes promoting its new chicken sandwich, Chick-fil-A and Wendy's prompted a Twitter feud that saw Popeyes gain significantly more store visits as a result.

To see if there was a longer-term impact, the researchers used a methodology pioneered by a team led by Dmitry Arkhangelsky, now at CEMFI in Madrid, to identify causal effects in economics and marketing. Bhave, Kamatham, and Bruce find that between August 2019 and February 2020, Popeyes saw an increase in store visits of almost 30 percent. Indeed Popeyes reported that store sales increased by 34 percent during this period.

The researchers also find that traffic increased more in southern US states. There were, on average, 58 percent more Popeyes visits per day in southern states compared with northern ones, according to the study. The chain is based in Louisiana, and although it has a presence in 49 states, it’s identified as “bursting with Louisiana flavor.” Chick-fil-A is also a southern chain, based in Georgia, but didn’t experience any difference in daily visits between southern and northern locations, while visits to Ohio-based Wendy’s dipped slightly in the south.

The researchers write that Popeyes’s southern locations saw the biggest boost at least in part because the tone of the Twitter feud seemed designed to appeal to Black Twitter, a community consisting mostly of Black users of the platform, which helped the banter to go viral. With expressions such as “y’all” and “looking thirsty” in its Tweets, Popeyes used language familiar to residents of the South and to Black Americans, slightly over half of whom live there.

One key question: Was the Twitter feud planned?

Information from the Nielsen Ad Intel Data at Chicago Booth’s Kilts Center for Marketing suggest that Chick-fil-A wasn’t acting particularly strategically when it kicked off the battle, the researchers report.

The company didn’t roll out any other marketing elements at the same time, such as price cuts or increased advertising. It spent only $800 a day pitching its original chicken sandwich, compared with Popeyes’s $66,000, the Nielsen data show. Meanwhile, it poured $25,000 a day into ads for its Smokehouse BBQ Bacon Sandwich. This suggests that, feeling a threat from the new Popeyes product, Chick-fil-A responded spontaneously through Twitter, the researchers say.

“That fear of losing some customers to this new sandwich likely propelled the social media manager to hastily type something up and say, ‘Hey, look at us. We are the original,’” Bhave says. “But what it actually ended up doing was give free publicity to Popeyes.” Bruce says the key lesson for brand marketers is that although Popeyes didn’t start the chicken-sandwich war, it ultimately benefited from the uproar as its rivals only helped increase awareness of the new product.

Had he been advising Chick-fil-A before that first tweet, Bruce says, he would have counseled resisting the temptation. If a brand starts a Twitter war in the context of a competitor’s new product launch, he says, “you can gift your rival not only [social media] engagements, but profits.”

More from Chicago Booth Review

More from Chicago Booth

Your Privacy
We want to demonstrate our commitment to your privacy. Please review Chicago Booth's privacy notice, which provides information explaining how and why we collect particular information when you visit our website.