KFC needs to be “more like Kylie and less like Jason” if the brand is to remain at the top of its game in a massively changing market landscape, one of its highest ranking UK directors has said.
The fast food chain is currently embarking on a multi-pronged strategy to boost public perception – which includes revamping its menus and installing open-plan kitchens – as it looks to correct some of the more outdated and ill-conceited perceptions about its business.
Jack Hinchliffe, innovation director for the UK and Ireland, said that when KFC first came to the UK it was enough to be “tasty, great value and convenient” but there was now pressure on it to move with the times and respond to challenges around issues such as obesity and responsibility.
Speaking at the Lunch! Show, he offered up a tongue-in-cheek analogy involving Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, who famously rose to prominence on Australian TV soap Neighbours and then went on to have very different music careers.
Pointing out that Kylie is 50-years-old, “which is about as old as KFC is in the UK”, he explained: “When we look at these two individuals, as they exited Neighbours I think we could have had a similar feeling about both of them: they were in a relationship on stage, they were in a relationship off stage, they were both launching amazing music careers.
“What’s Jason doing now? He is no doubt going round universities and touring to student unions, playing the same old songs, but Kylie has evolved and I think it would be fair to say those reinventions have allowed her to stay relevant over time. And when I look at KFC, I wonder if we have been a little bit more Jason and not quite enough Kylie over the last few years.”
Mr Hinchliffe said that part of what KFC is trying to do now is shine a light on the good that exists in its brand today.
“There are some really amazing things that I am really proud that we do at KFC, as an employer, in our welfare standards, in the way in which we cook and prepare our food. Of course, we have to evolve as well, it is not enough just to focus on the good that’s in our brand today; we also need to bring more good into it every single day.”
One of the obstacles KFC faces is how to dispel some of the myths that surround its food and the cooking process.
“All our chicken on the bone comes from British farms, it’s Red Tractor standard, delivered fresh – not frozen – to our restaurants and hand-breaded by our cooks in our restaurants and cooked to order. Not many people know that and that’s not for want of trying, it’s about how we can talk about it. So it’s not enough just to say we are going to focus on these areas, it is all about how we do that.”
He said that one step KFC has taken to address this has been to communicate in a “bold and disruptive way that will get people talking”, which prompted it to make what turned out to be the “most complained-about advert last year”. (Click on the link below to play video).
“Some people love it, and some people hate it, and some people are genuinely offended by it, but the truth is the conversation people are having is about KFC and chickens. And the biggest anxiety our consumers actually have isn’t that our chicken is fresh, that it’s Red Tractor or that it is hand-breaded in the restaurants, but that we have two-headed chickens, or mutant chickens, and all of these myths that are out there!
“So our job wasn’t to shine a spotlight on the good that we do but rather just address some of the issues. Our chickens are real chickens – some people may not like what we do, but that’s ok, that’s what we do – we cook and serve chicken.”
Turning to the much-publicised distribution issues that KFC faced earlier this year, when its switch from Bidvest to DHL led to stores running out of chicken, he described the episode as a “disaster” and a “real difficult time” for its teams and partners, but insisted there were some positives to come out of it.
“When the brand was as salient as it was, it was an amazing opportunity, and amazing to see, some of the good messages coming through. The Financial Times is not perhaps our target demographic, however the readers of it [through the stories it published] were learning that we have more rigorous conditions than those required by UK law, our chicken is fresh and not frozen, that we have very stringent standards, that we use fresh chicken and our quality expectations are incredibly high. So when the spotlight was on the brand, one of the few positives that came out of that tough situation was the quality and the care that goes into our food.”
KFC is now firmly focused on trying to ensure the chain gets the credit deserves, MrHinchliffe said. It has made its “really robust” welfare document available to the public, which is something it had not previously done, giving customers a transparent view of the procedures and requirements expected of our suppliers.
And it has in the early stages of building relationship with NGOs such as World Animal Protection, “which would not have worked with us a few years ago because of the misunderstanding of where our standards are”.
Mr Hinchliffe also broached the thorny subject of fast food advertising and acknowledged that while it still aims to present food in a “way that is really appealing and makes it as craveable as possible”, it needs to front up to the challenges that are in part caused by the industry and make meaningful change.
It has committed to reducing the number of calories in the average serving of KFC by 20% by 2025, which is the equivalent of removing 57 billion calories from its restaurants.
“We are going to do that through the normal measures really, so innovation is a big part of it – how do we design amazing products that people will crave, that they will want to buy. But it is not enough just to create choice anymore. You can’t just have a menu of unhealthy indefensible products and then hidden in the corner something that no-one ever buys, and that’s why we are committed to driving change. There is an opportunity to do that through reformulation – I won’t speak about we are going reformulate but we can do that – and also by using our expertise and marketing muscle to actually drive behavioural change.”
Mr Hinchliffe cited restaurant design as an important part of the strategy and said it was building and refreshing its 850-strong UK store estate in a way that reflects its good credentials.
This includes opening up its kitchens to eradicate the perception of “big stainless steel chutes where food just appears as if from a factory” and instead create “nice open passes where you can see into the kitchen so you know we have got nothing to hide”.
He continued: “If you look at the challenge that faces our industry, and the opportunity to create positive, meaningful change, we certainly know that we cannot do this alone, that our partners, suppliers are an absolutely critical part of making change for good, either in the food that we serve, through the materials we use, how we build restaurants and how we manage waste, and actually the industry as a whole is coming together more than ever to solve these challenges. If anyone wants to talk to us about solutions to some of the challenges that the industry faces, opportunities to make meaningful differences for our consumers and guests, then I would welcome it.”