70-80% of our investments go into digital & hyperlocal marketing: Gaurav Pande of Popeyes

Louisiana’s chicken quick service restaurant, Popeyes recently launched its store in Delhi after being in the South of India for two years. Gaurav Pande of Popeyes elaborates on the brand’s efforts in building awareness, creating a localised approach to suit the Indian market, the mediums utilised and growth strategy.

Shamita Islur
New Update
Gaurav Pande of Popeyes

The India Quick Service Restaurant Market size is estimated at 25.46 billion USD in 2024. It is expected to reach 38.71 billion USD by 2029, growing at a CAGR of 8.74% during the forecast period of 2024-2029. Some of the large players in the market are Jubilant Foodworks, Subway, McDonald’s and more. As per the report by Mordor Intelligence, the increasing popularity of meat-based dishes among Indian consumers (19.76% value share), coupled with rising disposable incomes and a growing young population, is driving the demand. 

The consumer behaviour-led Jubilant Foodworks launched Louisiana’s chicken quick service restaurant, Popeyes in India in January 2022 in Bengaluru. 

Gaurav Pande, Executive Vice President & Business Head, Popeyes mentions that the brand launched its first restaurant in South India due to the fact that the consumption of non-vegetarian food is much higher in South India than in other parts of the country.

In these two years of being in business in the Indian market, Pande has observed that the bold flavours of the West are very different from the bold flavours found in food in India. To meet the expectations of the Indian consumer palate, the brand customised a few food items that fit the tastes of Indian customers. 

Following its expansion in Southern cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and Manipal, the brand has now entered the North with stores in Delhi NCR’s Chandni Chowk & Jasola. 

Pande emphasises the brand’s modus operandi in the North will be the same as Popeyes looks to become a brand with a pan-India presence.

However, his lessons as a marketer have taught him that as a country, India is extremely diverse when it comes to tastes and marketers and brands need to keep this fact in mind as they decipher and decide on various taste profiles and preferences. 

He has observed that what may work in southern states may not work well in the next state since the palette keeps on changing across the states. 

To reach a diverse audience, the brand’s approach towards marketing involves investing in digital as a medium followed by hyperlocal. Pande mentions that the mediums that the brand uses typically end up being digital because it allows the brand to reach the right TG through geo-targeting and through hyperlocal interventions. 

Pande further elaborates on the brand’s efforts in building awareness, creating a localised approach to suit the Indian market, the mediums utilised and the strategy for growth in the country.

Edited Excerpts:

It's been two years since Popeyes entered the Indian market. Can you elaborate on the reasons and objectives behind the brand's strategic decision to enter the Indian market, particularly focusing on your expansion into Southern cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad?

Popeyes looked to enter India about a little over two years ago primarily because India has a huge tailwind of economic growth. With growing incomes, one of the places where people spend more money is eating and eating out. Entertainment also accounts for some portion of that extra income but eating out is usually the one choice that generally grows with growing income levels. Also, the increasing penetration of organized retail in India contributes directly to the growth opportunities in the country. Therefore if we plotted the Indian food business for several years, we can conclude that organized eating out is increasing with the road growth of branded / chain stores of various QSR and full-service restaurant brands.  

The number of non-vegetarian eaters in India has been growing rapidly year-on-year, which has resulted in the preference for eating chicken also growing at a higher rate year on year. The openness and willingness to try global cuisines is obviously growing as people are becoming more urban-centric, due to a significant percentage of the population moving to urban areas. 

The merging of both of the reasons above presents a tremendous opportunity to all QSR brands, especially Popeyes. By virtue of being part of the jubilant portfolio, we have gained a fair bit of experience in running QSR which helped us when we were looking at entering the Indian market. However, it would be safe to say that today the country stands at the crossroads of the QSR sector and as a whole in the longer term.

Popeyes launched its first restaurant in South India due to the fact that the consumption of non-vegetarian food is much higher in South India than in other parts of the country.  This led us to believe that by launching in South India, the penetration of the brand will be much higher than if we launched first in the North. 

Popeyes made a conscious decision to focus on expanding its presence in South India because of the inherent properties of the food that is served at any Popeyes restaurant. At Popeyes, the chicken used is fresh and sourced from local farms. This meant that Popeyes would have to build supply chain capability before expanding to other regions of the country. We started building that capability in the South first which led to the source being able to service up to a certain distance and provide raw material that was fresh and not preserved. This is one of the main reasons that Popeyes has been expanding rapidly across the South. 

With the launch of Popeyes in North India we have now created the capability supply chain capability in North as well. This has allowed us to expand in Delhi NCR and soon to areas nearby. This will allow Popeyes to stay true to the quality of ingredients that we are known for especially when it comes to freshly sourced chicken. This along with the 12 hours of marination that the chicken goes through makes the chicken much juicer and flavourful to eat. Marination is something which most of us Indians are used to doing at home as well making it a common practice in homes across the country. This is why Popeyes first expanded across the South and now is spreading its footprint across the North. The modus operandi will be the same as Popeyes looks to become a brand with a pan-India presence.   

Now with your recent entry into Delhi NCR, what factors influenced this move, and how do you plan to adapt your marketing strategies for a diverse market like Delhi? How are you localising your marketing efforts to suit the different parts of the country?

When we launched India where we had our main objective was to try to bring the global flavours that the brand is famous for, to India. Popeyes is known for its Cajun flavours, which were developed in the South of the United States in the state of Louisiana. The state was one where people came from all over the world, especially West Africa, France and other countries and settled. This resulted in Louisiana becoming a melting pot of cultures, which created a fusion of many kinds, whether it was culture, food or tastes. . 

Back then, spices were coming in from one part of the world and cooking styles from another and the fusion of the two gave the world Cajun cuisine or food. It is interesting to note that the foundation of Cajun food is spices that can be found across most, if not all, home kitchens in India.  Spices like bell peppers, celery, onion, and garlic all play an important role in driving Cajun flavour. Given that the flavours are well known in India, Popeyes brought the Cajun flavour and used it on the core products which is bone-in chicken and chicken sandwich. We just brought in the Global products which really did well amongst Indians. We tested them according to normal protocol and did not change the well-known and loved global flavours too much. However, given that Indians have a spicier palate, Popeyes is famous for bold flavours. Having said that the bold flavours of the West are very different from the bold flavours we find in food in India. And so we customized a few food items to meet the demands and the tastes of Indian customers. For example – wings were flavoured and called Sweet Chilli Wings. They are very highly rated in our menu that is designed for Indians; now, the flavour burst that was added on top of a base flavour of Cajun, which is the sweet chilli seasoning, was done keeping the Indian palate in mind. 

There was also an unmet expectation amongst Indian consumers of fried chicken. To avoid everything tasting as you would get in any other fried chicken chain, Popeyes has introduced chicken items like Cajun popcorn, which are Cajun seasoned bites of chicken; Popeyes has also introduced the bone in chicken, which comes in both classic and spicy flavours. The chicken wings have a regular and a sweet chilli variant. Popeyes offers two unique flavours for its bone-in chicken, Hot and Messy chicken items, which essentially are sauce-coated variants of sweet chilli and smoky pepper. All these flavours were added to meet the Indian palate and produce bolder and better flavours. We also launched wraps and rice bowls which are more carb-based foods which are popular amongst Indian consumers. 

Because globally, there's not much vegetarian food in Popeyes, but we crafted a tailor-made vegetarian menu for Indians that was still created keeping and using Cajun flavours as well.  Food items like the Cajun veggie burger have the same Cajun flavour profile that Popeyes is known for globally. In terms of minor adaptations, the salt adaptation, you know the spice adaptation that is always done from region to region. Secondly, vegetarian wraps and rice bowls, which are very Indian in terms of taste and or even preference, have been created only for consumers in India. 

Who do you identify as your primary target demographic in India?

The target group for Popeyes are more millennials and Gen Z's. When we look at the consumption profile, it tends to be more distributed because the flavour palate actually covers a much larger range. Consumers having smaller kids also like chicken and vegetarian popcorn or even the chicken sandwich. But for the most part, the communication in the media is targeted towards more Gen Z and millennials. 

What are the key considerations and challenges involved in bringing a QSR chain to India?

I don't think there are any big challenges in bringing a QSR chain in India especially if the chain is bringing successful food which is proven to be globally loved by consumers. Popeyes is a brand that brings with it more than 50 years of great heritage of serving really great quality chicken. Every store that we launch anywhere in the world, our first priority is to get the food right for consumers.

In my personal opinion, the only challenge in launching any product or any category or any business, anywhere in the world is making sure your product is meeting the consumer tastes or not and that is what Popeyes as a brand focuses unceasingly on. 

Even today as we run our restaurants, our focus is on making sure that the food is of the highest quality and tastes best when it is served along with the experience that consumers get irrespective of whether it is a dine-in order or delivered to their homes. If you're doing the best things for consumers you will not find it difficult to set up a business if you're not doing the right things for consumers, you will find it difficult to set up a new business. 

Getting it right for the customers is the key thing. The challenge in running a large QSR chain is obviously making it right across every touchpoint in every store, in every transaction.

The real challenge for large chains is to ensure uniformity across every store in the country and as a brand, we are confident of getting the uniformity and consistency correct because at Jubilant, this functions smoothly and correctly.  

Considering Popeyes is still relatively new to Indian consumers and is only just expanding into the country, could you share how are you building brand awareness, especially in terms of the mediums you are utilizing to promote the brand? 

Popeyes is right now, present in very few cities, few only given the size and scale of the country. Today, a Popeyes outlet can be found in only 15 cities in India. When it comes to advertising, Popeyes follows the route of largely very local advertising or what is known as city-based advertising. 

When we launch and enter a city we do go city-wide in an attempt to build awareness across the city. As the brand settles down and stands to create brand recall, in a city we tend to advertise more hyper-locally.

In cities like Bangalore and Chennai where we have a significant number of stores, you would see campaigns have mostly a pan-city presence. Even in Delhi NCR which has close to now about five restaurants campaigns are more pan-city level. But then in cities that have single stores the advertising strategy is limited to hyper-local advertising. That's the medium and approach to advertising for Popeyes. 

The mediums that we use typically end up being digital because it allows you to reach the right TG through geo-targeting and through hyperlocal interventions. So digital is one big channel of advertising. 


Secondly, we depend on the outdoors and hyperlocal outdoors. Sometimes the outdoors will also mean outdoors inside a mall location, and not necessarily inside the store or it could be within the mall premises. So branding within the mall is also a form of outdoor branding. Branding could be done outdoors but in and around the vicinity of the store. We also do a lot of social media, which is mainly driven by our own channel or through presence with our partnerships with influencers and other brands. So that's the third medium that we end up doing. We have also used slightly smaller mediums in the past, print but print is not the main channel that we go to.

But we have used print in the past and we've also used channels like online radios, to create awareness. Thus, the mediums that we use are digital, social media and hyperlocal. For example, hyperlocal outdoors could be hyperlocal within a mall or could be activations in the form of residential society activations, or college activations. But there's a large span of things that can be done using hyperlocal branding and advertising. But these three, digital, social media and hyperlocal form the bulk of our approach or the mediums that we use for creating awareness.

How does performance marketing contribute to this?

So performance marketing is an important part. We tend to classify performance marketing as something which is on a click basis. That's the idea but does this really convert into conversion? So I don't know whether you would classify YouTube advertising, which has a click option as performance marketing is not, but sometimes even those give good results in terms of clicks. We do performance marketing, diverting people to our apps to convert and the amount of money that we spend keeps on varying through the month so it is not a specific amount that we spend, but again, as I said I don't see it as a different unit. 

For me, the advertising needs to have two classical things that need to come into place. One, it needs to inform the consumers about its USP of the brand, because, for someone who doesn't know the brand, it is even wrong to assume that when I say Popeyes, they will understand that it's a restaurant, or it's a chicken chain. 

So the first thing is to tell the consumers about the Popeyes brand, the Popeyes brand USP, what the brand stands for which is a USP of bold Cajun flavours, our heritage, where we come from and the food that we stand for. So the first juicy chicken or the RTB is of 12-hour marination. That's something we need to tell consumers with the form of advertising, whether it is outdoors, performance marketing, or digital, what you call digital salience-building advertising. And then the second thing is obviously it needs to in the business that we are, it needs to get people to, it has to have a strong call to action for people to come and buy. These two units need to work together. Again, as I said, classically, what is called performance marketing these days, I would say it's a small part of the budget not the bulk of our budget, but we do performance advertising, and we do have a decent number of people also buying on our app.

Could you share which of these channels contribute to the largest investments for the brand in terms of marketing? Would you be able to share a percentage that goes into these channels?

Digital obviously is the largest, followed by a lot of investments in hyperlocal. But as a single medium digital would be the biggest because hyperlocal would be the second biggest bucket spread across different mediums. You would have spends within malls, you would have local activities, but then these two would be the biggest.

It would be safe to say that as a group, these two channels is where most of our spending takes place roughly to the estimate of about 70% to 80% of our working budget on these two channels.

How does influencer marketing factor into Popeyes' communication strategies? Are there any examples of successful influencer partnerships that amplify the brand messaging?

We have normally worked with influencers who are local and who are associated with the category. So we have generally, what we try to do is as we enter the city, we try to partner with them we even send them invites to visit our stores as well. So, we do work in partnership as well. But our way of reaching out or deciding the criteria of what pool is influencers who have, a decent local presence, and who are associated with the category. Most of the partnerships you would see is based on the above-mentioned parameters, but if you trace the brand back, there maybe a few partnerships that fall outside these parameters. 

In general, these two criteria work well for us and help us accumulate a large range of influencers spanning from nano to macro influencers. Everyone has a different definition these days of micro and macro, but I would say from small to large influencers but we have not gone I won't say we have not gone much on influencers who edge towards being a celebrity, which shows that we tend to not use much of the large or macro influencers for the marketing of our products. 

Popeyes' social media presence incorporates moment marketing trends and paid partnerships to build brand presence. What are the key themes and messaging you aim to communicate through these platforms, and how does it contribute to strengthening Popeyes' brand identity and relevance in the Indian market?

There are two parts of focus for the brand. One part of the brand is the core benefits it offers which is all-round food and second part of the brand is the character of the brand or nature of the brand.  So it is lively, it is more young and youthful and it’s definitely not old. If you see the second is almost like a guardrail that we follow. So most of the communications would be around the same line. So what you would see is that every communication will have a sort of peppy music to it. If it has music, it will have the same jingle playing along with it. The music will also be a little bit of jazz-inspired music, which is what comes from Louisiana. So those are the guardrails. The message is all about food. Messages are focused on the core attributes that we pride ourselves in, it talks about fresh chicken, and the marination process and it will also talk about the heritage which is Louisiana or New Orleans, where Popeyes originates from.


All the communication will be around this except for the communication which is around events, big days or festive days, the communication will then revolve around celebrating the topicality of the moment around the character of the brand. In most of the communication, the messaging is about the making of the product. 


Communication could also be around the experience of the consumers on tasting the product. It could be around the preparation process or the different forms of chicken available. Communication could also be around the overall experience of consumers. 

Popeyes' social handles have a lot of fun videos, testimonials, reviews, etc. which talk about what the brand means to the consumers in a very lively and youthful manner, which is the ethos and inherent character of the brand. This is the general approach for all our advertising or communication.


The brand has been engaging the audience through partnerships with Coca-Cola and Bangalore Football Club. May I know the objective behind these partnerships and how have they helped?  

Let me start by saying that Coke is a strategic and long-term partner for us. Beverages are a very adjacent category and they complement the food served in Popeyes extremely well. Thus, the beverages served at any Popeyes store are only Coke products. To provide customers with multiple options, we create several combo options which pair a food item/s along with a beverage. 

As part of the strategic partnership, we have engaged with Coke in collaborating when it comes to ground activations. Not only are the on-ground activations done together, but a lot of the time, the social media activity around activities and activations is also done in a co-branded manner, some of these have also translated into slightly larger event participations or collaborations. In the case of cricket events where Coke was the official sponsor and Popeyes created its own activations around it. 

These have helped increase the visibility of the brand especially when it comes to topical events. So obviously the complementarity of both products with each other is definitely the biggest win and goes a long way in helping create brand salience.

An article mentioned that Popeyes aims to become the fastest QSR chain to achieve Rs 1,000 crore in sales within the next few years, could you outline the steps being taken to reach this ambitious goal and what role does marketing play in driving revenue growth and market share expansion?

I think the first step in this was to win the hearts of consumers by serving great-tasting food. I think we are very confident that we are doing well. We are rated very well in terms of the food ratings. We are rated very well on experience within the store and experience in other channels as well, outside the store, which is either delivery, carry out or dine-in so we are rated well across all the three channels. 

Ensuring that we were rated highly across all these parameters was the all-important first step. To create a large scalable business, being the preferred means you have to win the hearts and tastes of customers. 

Also, it’s important to be located and have a brand recall in the right geographies. Popeyes pays a great deal of attention to this particular criteria as can be seen from its store network across multiple cities in the South starting with its first store in Bengaluru. Post establishing itself in South India, Popeyes has now shifted a great deal of its attention to building its presence in North India starting with stores in Chandigarh and across Delhi NCR. The plan is to expand across India over a period of time making sure that our stores are located in the right places in the right areas. 

Finally, it is critical to replicate the entire Popeyes experience that customers love and remember in every store that we launch. This means that we cannot just rest on our laurels or get complacent but we have to deliver the same great experience for customers in every store that opens. 

From the point of view of marketing, it is also important that as we continue to focus on the above-mentioned parameters, we also need to simultaneously build brand salience because not much is known about Popeyes and its brand story right now. Nationally the marketing team’s core job is to build salience and make the brand stand for what it really stands for globally. i.e. “lip-smacking and extremely flavourful chicken”. Globally, we take pride in saying that we don’t just have guests or customers but by winning over their taste buds and hearts, we gain an army of fans who we want to come back and eat the same amazingly flavourful food over and over again. 

This is something that we are looking to replicate in all our restaurants in India as we continue to build the key tenets of the Popeyes around, Indian tastes, culture and hospitality.  

With premiumization driving the growth of food chains like Popeyes as per a report by ICICI Securities, how does the brand plan to capitalize on the increased disposable income of Gen Z and working millennials in India? How do you intend to leverage this trend to expand your market share and maintain a competitive edge against other organized players in the industry?

India is a very large country actually and to win Popeyes will need to be present across all income groups. However, even though we have premium offerings we still need to ensure that we appeal to all the groups. I won't say that our win will only come from winning with groups which are premium in nature. 

I think to win in India you have to be available for every cohort across every price point. And that is what is going to be our strategy going forward. 

The main focus here is that any product we offer at any price point has to give the best value in terms of taste and also in terms of serving both. 

That's our key job, as the country's premium consumers will obviously be more willing to go out and eat out. Given that there is still a huge untapped market of those consumers who do not go out to eat, the opportunity for growth by tapping into this market is immense. The tailwind I mentioned above, is going to come from more and more consumers walking into QSRs as their first choice for when they want to eat out. A part of the growth will also come from consumers who are eating at QSRs at a slightly higher ticket size or a bigger and more premium - product within the QSR space. And I think we will cater to both these sets of consumers because the way I see it, I do not think that there's just one vector of growth for us.

What lessons have been learned from the Indian market that could be applied to future market expansions or adaptations for Popeyes globally?

Over the years I have found it very interesting to note that in my career as a marketer, I have gained cognizance of the fact that the lessons learned across global markets still fall short of the lessons that you need to apply in the Indian market. India is a very unique market, and to win in the Indian market you actually need to apply the lessons learned in the home market rather than the lessons learned from across the globe. Sometimes even those lessons may fall short for a big brand to win in India. 

The Indian market is a complex mix of many markets. What one can take away from studying the market is that India is primarily a developed market while many parts of the country are still developing. When comparing a cohort of consumers it’s easy to differentiate people who are at a very low per capita or at a very low income level from those who are sitting at really good income levels in India representing a very prosperous country. 

So income diversity plays a very important role and allows any brand to learn how to target and appeal to diverse income groups. As a country, we are extremely diverse when it comes to tastes and marketers and brands need to keep this fact in mind as we decipher and decide on various taste profiles and preferences. 

Thus, what may work in southern states may not work well in the next state and then the palette keeps on changing across the states. 

So, that in itself gives us a lot of learnings, which can be applied across different consumer cohorts in different countries. And we are, in terms of being a cross-section of consumer profiles in terms of taste palates based on income groups or socio-economic status, we can be said to be a plethora of Indians, providing the opportunity to apply a wide variety of learnings. 

To cite an example, the learnings on what I think we have applied in India in terms of flavours of food have already been replicated in some other countries by the brand. So, there are clear learnings that any brand gets from a country which is as diverse as India. It is my firm belief that Popeyes is no different and will also get the same set of learnings across this different cohort of consumers which can in some shape or form be mirrored in another country by the brand. 


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