Paloma Azulay was quietly appointed Popeyes global chief marketing officer in January, and stepped into the role last month. Prior to that, she was global CMO for another of Restaurant Brands International’s iconic chains: Tim Hortons, the beloved Canada-based coffee-centric fast-food chain.
In her relatively new role, Azulay is reporting directly to Fernando Machado, who heads marketing for all three of RBI’s brands: Popeyes, Tim Hortons and Burger King.
Azulay brings to RBI 14 years of experience with Coca-Cola, for which she worked in her native Brazil and Europe. Now, she’s working to expand Popeyes’ presence in markets around the globe.
Adweek spoke with Azulay to discuss where she sees the brand headed in a post-chicken sandwich wars world, and how she hopes to expand Popeyes’ reach—without losing the authenticity responsible for the hype.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Adweek: What did you learn from your time at Tim Hortons that you hope to bring to Popeyes?
Paloma Azulay: Working at Tim Hortons was a big privilege. There and at Coca-Cola, which was also an iconic, established brand, I think you learn the importance of building a strong brand beyond the strong product. And I think that is a basic principle of marketing. But it’s interesting to see the legacy that Tim Hortons had with the Canadian community—the fact that the brand had very clear brand values that word like a mirror to Canadian values. And these made a very strong connection with millions of Canadians that go to things every day and they love the brand. It’s a relationship that’s really a love affair. It’s very emotional.
Popeyes has hardcore fans, but it’s still No. 3 in the market in the U.S. What Popeyes has to do now is build a strong brand beyond the super strong products that we already have. And to do that, it will take some work for us in terms of refining the brand positioning and understanding how we’re going to connect with our communities. We had this amazing hype for the sandwich last year, but when you look at the brand in the long term there is not a lot of association and loyalty in terms of having a large base of people that come to us frequently.
There are brands and then there are iconic brands. What makes a brand iconic is when it becomes part of the pop culture, and I think Popeyes is just scratching the surface in this regard. We have an authentic story to tell, we have a very clear heritage, and a very interesting and rich history coming from Louisiana. Now we need to articulate the story to the world in a way that’s relevant for today’s times. And that makes a brand that today’s very nice for say a brand for everyone and appealing for everyone.
Popeye’s just hired Gut over GSD&M, a longtime agency partner. Going forward, will Gut lead all Popeyes global marketing or will you have a bigger roster of partner agencies the way that Burger King does?
Today we have a mix. Gut is our lead creative agency for the U.S. market. Since Popeyes is still small around the world, we’re still building the basic awareness and attraction for the brand. But the idea is to have Gut as the major creative lead but still leverage local talent, which I believe is super important to help us localize and translate the brand in different countries.
Where do you see the most global growth potential for Popeyes?
China is a market that we are keeping an eye on very closely—we are going to open there very soon. It’s a market that KFC already developed, and there is a huge passion for fried chicken. I’m sure they will love our products and I’m very excited about the journey of getting the Popeyes brand in a market that is so different from the U.S.—to bring the heritage of the brand but also localizing it. It’s a very interesting challenge.