Is KFC out on a wing with new marketer?

KFC’s marketing chief is entering a new sector and the heat is on as observers wait to see what’s on the menu in terms of strategy

KFC’s new UK marketing director Claire Harrison-Church is hoping to bring the “Lynx effect” with her when she joins the fast-food giant next month.

Harrison-Church, the Unilever marketer behind Lynx barber shops, takes up the post, which has been vacant for more than six months, at a time of rapid expansion in the fast-food arena.

According to Mintel, the burger market will be worth &£1.84bn by the end of 2001 – an increase in real terms of 34 per cent over a five-year period. The fast food chicken market is also experiencing strong growth, with sales increasing by 15 per cent to &£633m in the same period.

John Prior, KFC’s former marketing director, left the company after he was poached by Regus. On his departure, he accused one of KFC’s executives of having a “poor call on the business”.

During his two-year stint, Prior made an impact on the KFC brand. He dropped Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Ulrika Jonsson and Ivana Trump from its ad campaigns and brought back the Colonel Sanders icon, believing it better represented KFC’s mainstream target market.

He also put KFC into cyber-space with and introduced an array of new products including Crispy Strips, Twisters and Popcorn Chicken. According to its own figures, KFC believes it will have a projected turnover of &£387m in 2001 – up from &£241m in 1998.

One competitor says: “[Prior] had a sharply defined strategy, consistent advertising and good new product development (npd). We were pleased to see him leave.” But Prior was unable to fulfil his ultimate objective: to make KFC chicken as ubiquitous as a Big Mac. He says: “Instead of people saying ‘I’m going for a Big Mac, I wanted them to say ‘I’m going for a KFC’.”

One challenge facing Harrison-Church is keeping both the KFC management and the franchisees happy. Franchisees are an influential force within KFC, holding about a 60 per cent stake in the business.

It is understood that the fast-food chain has ratified a marketing plan for the next 12 months. Whether Harrison-Church will make any immediate changes remains to be seen. Some say she must concentrate on keeping the momentum going.

KFC general manager Justin Ash has given Harrison-Church a licence to “do as she pleases” while focusing on issues including the development of the café-style restaurants and drive-thrus, increasing sales growth and taking a “careful” look at the marketing mix. There will also be product launches next year and children’s promotions will also be considered.

One industry observer says: “McDonald’s is stable and doing well. KFC is growing and there are signs that Burger King is slipping.”

A Taylor Nelson report, calculated up to the end of July, suggests that KFC is starting to pull ahead of Burger King with a larger share of the quick service restaurant (QSR) sector. The market share figures show that McDonald’s is still way ahead on 26 per cent, with Burger King on 5.1 per cent and KFC on 5.6 per cent. There are several reasons for KFC starting to assert its dominance over Burger King. The fried chicken market has grown, while the burger market has declined.

KFC has also been able to take advantage of Burger King’s lack of direction. Reports suggest that the burger chain’s owner, Diageo, is looking to exit the fast-food quandary to focus on its core drinks business. Burger King is also said to be in talks with agencies about its &£11m UK ad account.

In the past, the big fast-food brands have adopted similar strategies to drive sales through increased advertising spend and a long-term outlet opening blitz. Between 1995 and April 2000 McDonald’s increased its number of outlets from 577 units to around 1,200. KFC and Burger King are following suit. KFC, which has 520 outlets, plans to open 50 a year with a target of 800 sites by 2005. Burger King has about 750 outlets with plans for an additional 500 by 2005.

KFC is ambitious, but some see problems on the horizon, starting with the appointment of a marketing director who is entering unfamiliar territory. A former Unilever colleague says of Harrison-Church: “She’s been at Unilever for 15 years and is steeped in our way of doing things – it’ll be very interesting to see how she adapts.”

Some observers believe the job would have been better suited to a candidate used to marketing more complex products. Harrison-Church’s background in packaged goods, where the brief is to keep the image of the product constant, is very different to running a branded chain of retail outlets and a series of product brands.

Others see KFC as a “dead in the water” brand and view the appointment of Harrison-Church as a masterstroke. They believe she will make going to a KFC an “experience” and cite how she brought the Lynx brand to life with the opening of two branded barber shops in the capital.

John Williamson, board director at the brand consultancy Wolff Olins, believes KFC needs to establish a more clearly defined and up-to-date image to entice young people to visit its outlets. He says: “The brand is tired. It’s talking to a past generation. KFC needs to humanise the brand and get rid of the Austrian psychiatrist image. KFC does not have any idea what it wants to be. It’s not Kentucky, it’s not fried and it’s not chicken.”

Harrison-Church may well set out to make KFC a more fashionable business. If so, the starting point is likely to be a makeover for old Colonel Sanders, to bring him into the 21st century.

As one agency source says: “The white double-breasted suit and string tie have just got to go.”

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