Mary Brown’s puts a taste of Nashville on the menu

Canadian chicken chain Mary Brown’s has fired another shot in the chicken sandwich wars, announcing this week that it is launching a “Nashville line-up” highlighted by the Nashville Mary sandwich.

Vice-president of marketing Jeff Barlow said the sandwich—along with a new side called Nashville Taters—will complement the chain’s existing chicken sandwich line-up, which includes the “OG” Big Mary, the Spicy Big Mary, and the Buffalo Mary.

But this new sandwich is no Hail Mary. The company has spent the past year refining the product, and Nashville hot chicken is having a moment as an increasingly popular subset of the super-charged chicken sandwich category. The Nashville Mary is launching as an LTO, but could potentially become a permanent addition to the menu based on customer feedback.

And while the chicken (and burger) chains have been trying to out-do each other with heat, Mary Brown’s believes it can catch more chicken enthusiasts with hot honey. The Nashville Mary comes in on the milder end of what it calls the “spice odometer,” adding hot honey and a hint of smokiness.

“We developed something that was sweet, savoury and spicy, and we think that’s a critical difference from everything else that’s out there,” said Barlow. “It’s not going to burn your head off. The goal was to be full of flavour.”

The national chain is putting a major media push behind the Nashville line-up, with a major broadcast buy that includes a heavy focus on sports, and an extensive digital/programmatic campaign. As part of an ongoing partnership with Rogers Sports & Media, it has been running an in-game segment during the first quarter of Toronto Raptors telecasts on Sportsnet called “Mary Browns’ Big 3.”

Developed in partnership with Blue Ant Plus, marketing for the Nashville Mary and Taters eschews splashy conceptual advertising, instead opting for a Q&A format with the chain’s director of culinary, Derek Lawrence. He matter-of-factly describes how Mary Brown’s wanted its new sandwich to deliver on flavour, using the “Crave delicious. Crave Canadian” positioning.

“Instead of doing a really glossy commercial, we decided to focus on the person who came up with that flavour profile,” said Barlow, who characterized the company’s marketing approach as Canadians speaking to Canadians. “I guess we’re a little more down-to-earth, and a little bit more Canadian. It’s not about glitz and glamour, but focusing on the quality of the food and how we came up with the food.”

Chicken sandwiches have long been a QSR staple: Burger King launched what’s now known as its Original Chicken Sandwich in 1978, while McDonald’s introduced the McChicken in 1980. But the past decade has seen an explosion of offerings. Food magazine Bon Appetit stated in 2016 that we had reached “peak fried chicken sandwich mania,” a prognostication that proved woefully inaccurate.

The 2019 arrival of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich sent the category into overdrive, with competitors scrambling to introduce new offerings to catch the wave. According to a CBC story citing data from The NPD Group data, chicken sandwich sales in Canada increased 14% last year.

And even non-chicken chains have been busily trying to wet their beak. The seafood chain Red Lobster, for example, came ashore last year with the launch of its own chicken sandwich. (Too bad chicken of the sea had already been claimed.)

“It’s just a renewed appreciation for a great chicken sandwich,” said Barlow of the category’s growth, which shows no sign of abating. “Chicken is a world protein that’s accepted and appreciated anywhere in the world, and it falls into the comfort food category.”

Restaurant chains are also drawn by its versatility and malleability, he said. “There are so many different flavours that can come out of it. Generally a burger’s a burger, but chicken can be marinated and prepared [in different ways] and the flavour can be changed so much.”

The new sandwich launch is just one aspect of what is shaping up as a pivotal year for Mary Brown’s, which plans to add another 50 stores in Canada, and is pursuing international expansion.

It is also introducing a new store concept called Mary Brown’s Express, which will see smaller footprint stores (approximately 1,000 square feet) placed in venues like airports. “We’re going to be in all these different places you wouldn’t expect a Mary Brown’s to be,” said Barlow.

Chris Powell