KFC, the fast-food chain formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, is on a roll. At a time when McDonald's, the biggest player in the fast food sector, is closing restaurants, KFC is adopting an aggressive expansion drive across the UK (Marketing, November 28).
KFC is investing more than £100m in its plan to have 850 stores by 2005, with a target of 1000 by 2008. This comes as McDonald's is to close down 175 restaurants in ten countries. In 2001 the US burger giant had 1184 outlets in the UK (according to Mintel).
On the KFC web site its founder and brand icon Colonel Sanders speaks from beyond the grave, saying: "You like my chicken so much that we're growing faster than any of them other big restaurant names - including them Burger Boys". And it's those 'burger boys' who'd better watch out as KFC proceeds to carve a chunk out of the market.
Not that KFC's ambitions stop there. Last week the chicken chain announced it is moving its UK advertising account out of Ogilvy & Mather and into Bartle Bogle Hegarty, raising the possibility of some creative sparkle in its ads.
But why is KFC enjoying a hike in UK sales when other fast-food brands are experiencing a dip? And how will KFC's marketing keep sales buoyant and sustain the chain's expansion plans?
One reason is a shift in people's dietary preferences as the media's promotion of health awareness has steered people away from fatty and red meat toward white meat. Dominik Nosalik, market analyst at Datamonitor, says: "People who are meat reducers are on the rise. They are cutting back predominantly on red meat, and chicken is generally seen as a healthy option. Whether KFC is better for you, given what it is fried in, is arguable."
The fast-food industry has historically attracted criticism. While McDonald's is widely acknowledged to use processed meat, KFC sells 'real' cuts of chicken. But as a mass-producer of food, it is still not immune to negative publicity.
In January 2000 KFC was the victim of an e-mail hoax that originated from the University of New Hampshire in the US. The e-mail claimed KFC used the flesh of featherless, feetless and beakless genetically mutated poultry and claimed its chickens were kept alive by tubes inserted in them. The mailing urged consumers to contact their local restaurants and demand the return of 'real chicken'. The crisis management response was immediate and effective and the rumour was soon quashed.
KFC has adapted its menu over the years and embraced product development.
It ditched processed chicken in 1999 and introduced more convenient-to-eat products. Burgers and wraps now account for an estimated 40% of the chain's sales, according to Mintel.
This innovation may well continue under its marketing director, Claire Harrison-Church, who joined from Unilever in August 2001. As the marketer behind the launch of Lynx Barber Shops, she is no stranger to innovation.
But with the menu in hand and the money available to expand, the next question is where?
"KFC doesn't have as many premium locations in city centres, which is a chink in its armour," says Nosalik. "Perhaps it is pursuing this as an opportunity." It is highly probable that as KFC opens more outlets it will do so in more prominent locations. Part of people's perception of the brand is that it resides on the fringes of town and city centres and that it attracts a customer from a lower demographic group.
If its growth strategy is to be successful KFC will need to broaden its target market and this is where marketing and the BBH appointment will come into their own.
"We want to find a way to talk about the food, but in such a way to get non-users to use the brand. We are aware of the negative perceptions, which is part of the problem," says Harrison-Church.
KFC clearly draws on its heritage, using Colonel Sanders to market the brand. Ogilvy & Mather's advertising used the US' template of an animated Colonel, which it adapted for different markets. Then there was a spate of live-action ads with a voiceover by Samuel L Jackson that attempted to shift the tone away from the US-style executions. Will that style of ad resurface?
"We are not embarrassed about being a US brand. Equally, we don't believe in going over the top about it. We did move away from the animated Colonel.
It was a good branding device, but over time it didn't work," Harrison-Church says. In fact, she adds the ads were degrading the 'real' Colonel's image. "We see him as the stamp of authority but not necessarily as the only thing in the advertising.
"We want BBH to create a stronger brand awareness, to be more assertive about our food and the way we talk about it." KFC will continue to advertise specific products, but with a "consistent campaign - a big idea that pulls those products together," she concludes.
KFC is not going to overthrow the burger giants yet, as McDonald's and Burger King have far greater market penetration. But as consumers continue to seek fast-food alternatives to red meat, KFC's ambitions couldn't come at a more opportune time.
NUMBER OF UK OUTLETS
Outlet 1995 1998 2000 2001 % change Adspend pounds
McDonald's 577 836 1016 1184 105 39,411,836
Burger King 379 465 630 750 101 8,677,379
KFC 370 400 489 560 51 14,031,615
Nando's 5 8 23 44 780 N/A
Source: Mintel (number of outlets); ACNielsen MMS