Fast food chains should stick to what theyre known for

One of my favourite episodes of the US hit show Curb Your Enthusiasm features the main character, Larry David, being told by an acquaintance that he is a “self-hating Jew”. The implication is that David has bought into the criticism of his own people so much that he doesn’t even like himself.

David treats this situation as comedy fodder for his awkward character, but it got me thinking about real-life brands that might well fall into the same category. Is it possible that there are self-hating companies out there? A recent strategy decision by KFC leads me to ask whether the business could fall into this trap

Earlier this year, the US division of fast-food chain KFC announced that despite being built on a heritage of special “secret recipe” fried chicken, it was going to start giving equal menu space to grilled chicken in some stores. That’s right – KGC (Kentucky Grilled Chicken).

I hear you asking, so what? In a time of global obesity concerns, it makes sense for a fast-food chain to start serving something less calorie-loaded. That’s certainly true, but when does “responding to consumer needs” become “undermining your core brand ethos and offering”?

KFC is all about the very thing that its name suggests – fried chicken. When I go to a branch, I am going there because I want that special recipe fried chicken that I can’t obtain anywhere else. For non-fried chicken, I can turn to other brands, such as Portuguese-style chain Nando’s. I can even grill my own chicken at home, which is likely to be healthier than any restaurant food.

By taking its focus off fried chicken alone, KFC is turning its back on the sole, convincing reason for people to walk in and eat there. It has already taken steps to reduce the calorie content, salt and eliminate transfats from the food. We all know that fried chicken should only be a treat but that’s a legitimate brand position.

If it wants to follow the McDonald’s route and offer weight-watching mothers the choice of grilled chicken while the kids guzzle down the fried stuff, that’s one strategy. Giving the grilled chicken an equal status with the original recipe is entirely another. In my mind, it says to consumers: “I don’t really like what I do best”.

It reminds me of a conversation that I had earlier this year with Pierre Woreczek, senior vice-president of brand strategy at McDonald’s. He explained how he started work at the fast-food business in France just as the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis hit beef supplies.

Woreczek described how McDonald’s immediately started promoting its chicken products to consumers. It didn’t want people to stop coming to the restaurants. But he argued that this was a strategic mistake because customers came to the brand for its beefburgers. By taking the focus off the company’s core area, it was undermining its reason for existence.

He explained: “If you are in the mindset of ‘are they trustworthy?’ and you see something else proposed, you think ‘oh the beef is not safe’. So it was a huge lesson for us in how human beings think. When BSE happened again, three years later, we did it right.

“When you are famous for something, build on it. Trust it. Translate this trust into everything you do and don’t let anyone think for a second that you don’t trust what you do.”

I accepted this statement with a pinch of (low sodium) salt. Didn’t McDonald’s then go on to introduce salads, hardly its core offering? Woreczek acknowledged this was true but emphasised that the salads are about giving people extra choice in what they eat, not replacing what the brand is famous for.

It seems to me that KFC’s owner Yum Brands! should be adopting the same policy. Grilled chicken is fine for a healthier option but don’t give it the same billing as fried. By doing this, you implicitly tell customers that they shouldn’t really be eating what has given your brand its justification for existing in the first place.

In this obesity-obsessed climate, KFC saw its US operation decline by 3% last year; it clearly wants to do the right thing but I’m not sure this is the solution. It is notable that previous efforts to offer non-fried chicken, such as a rotisserie-style product in the Nineties, flopped.

The real challenge for brands like KFC is in accepting that perhaps it cannot ever be a sensible daily eating option for consumers. It’s a naughty treat and all the better for it. I wish it luck with the grilled chicken. Hopefully, it will reduce waistlines and not turn out to be a joke worthy of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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