Colonel Sanders’ new modern army of outlets

KFC is testing a new restaurant design with hi-tech innovations, new seating areas and decor focusing on its hand-preparedmenu to better cater formodern tastes.

Changing season: Self-service points and a focus on its hand-prepared menu is part of the new KFC look

The fast-food sector has been forced to undergo an evolution in recent years. After the 2004 documentary Super Size Me exposed the health risks of excessive consumption of fatty foods, brands were jolted into action to assess their brand from all angles.

Most famously, McDonald’s – the direct target of the film – has embarked on a massive overhaul of its brand, from its menu choices to its restaurants.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), too, has endured its own controversies, including criticism over sourcing and questions over its food preparation.

While the company draws on its heritage by using founder Colonel Sanders as its brand “face”, the overall business positioning is steadily shifting to reflect the attitudes of modern consumers. In the UK, this involves emphasising that it uses hand-prepared fresh chicken in its restaurants.

UK business development director for the fast-food chain, Everett Fieldgate, adds that a decision has just been taken to reduce the level of saturated fat in the oil used for frying early in the new year. “There is a lot happening by way of removing a lot of the negatives associated with quick service restaurants, but not changing what we are,” he says.

According to UK vice-president of marketing Jennelle Tilling, KFC has been cooking all of its chicken on the bone, fillet burgers and mini fillets from fresh for some time, but has only chosen to communicate this in its advertising in the past two years. The brand is now adding Zingers and hot wings to that list, and eventually aims to prepare all its chicken products in store from fresh ingredients, Tilling says.

Changing season: Self-service points and a focus on its hand-prepared menu is part of the new KFC look
Changing season: Self-service points and a focus on its hand-prepared menu is part of the new KFC look

For the first time, similar messaging is moving into KFC interiors as part of an attempt to freshen up the restaurant experience with a completely new design. It includes posters and videos about its use of fresh chicken, and details of the breading process. “While we spend a lot of money on advertising, obviously the most powerful expression of your brand is your restaurant,” says Tilling.

Two sites in the West Midlands, Cannock and Nuneaton, are testing the new design by architects Gensler. It incorporates new technology, kitchen layout and seating arrangements intended to transform the customer’s visit. Among the features being trialled is the “tribe wall”, where customers can take photos of themselves as they enter and have them appear on a wall of digital screens in the middle of the restaurant. Drinks machines also allow customers to serve themselves.

All the elements are works in progress. It was quickly realised, for example, that the tribe wall needs to be overseen by staff to ensure photos are appropriate, while coffee is likely to be removed from the self-service counter because of the perception that it cheapens what ought to be a higher quality experience.

Perhaps the most ambitious and bizarre aspect of the new restaurant layout is an area known as the “red room”, which has been designed as an eating area for younger consumers.

Enclosed on three sides by red glass, the interior space is suffused by a scarlet glow reminiscent of a window in Amsterdam. From the outside, especially at night, the room is illuminated as a beacon of the KFC brand identity, but Tilling admits the execution is not quite right yet.

“The red room looks great from the outside, and conceptually is really fun and unique to our brand. Inside, I think the lighting can be improved to be a little less harsh,” she says.

Within the room, KFC has introduced touch-sensitive technology projected onto the tables. Through this, visitors are able to access games and music videos from 4Music programme The Crush, which KFC sponsors. While it is unlikely to appear in all locations, Fieldgate says the technology is not a gimmick for these concept restaurants, and will probably feature in some of KFC’s larger stores. Smaller restaurants might feature elements of the red room without the technology, he predicts.

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According to Tilling, the area has been particularly successful at engaging teenagers, though there is still development work to be done. The prospect of being able to use this content channel as a means of disseminating marketing messages is readily apparent. “We are going to test how we can bring music and gaming more to life. Can it do things like Facebook and social media? This is a real engagement opportunity that we are still playing with and learning from,” she says.

The red room is just one example of how the restaurants in Cannock and Nuneaton have been designed to create different spaces to cater for customers’ different reasons for visiting. Various types of seating and colour palettes create areas that encourage customers either to recharge their batteries quickly, relax with a coffee or reconnect with friends. However, operationally everything about the restaurant is aimed at speed and convenience of service.

A self-service ordering machine means that customers who would otherwise be put off by a long queue can place their order before going to the counter to collect it. The point at which this is most likely is when the queue is ten people deep, according to Fieldgate.

According to customer surveys carried out by the brand, satisfaction has risen between 8% and 10% since the new design was introduced, and one in four people say the experience is “much better than expected”. On the crucial measure of frequency of visits, 14% say they are more likely to visit the new restaurants more often.

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Not all the outcomes of the new design are entirely positive on the bottom line, however. The new layout fits fewer seats than previously, for example, and the design is more expensive to execute than the current one. Once economies of scale are factored in across all restaurants, Fieldgate says the cost of a new-build restaurant would be “about par” with KFC’s current investment programme, except for the red room’s touch-table technology. Refurbishment would continue to be more expensive, but Tilling predicts that extra costs would be offset by the benefits of the design.

“It is a more expensive store design, and that is not surprising given that they are two concept stores: you want to test everything. But we are finding that revenue is increasing as a result, and we are seeing satisfaction levels rise.”

The new restaurant design is part of an ongoing development scheme across KFC’s 800 UK locations. In 2010, Tilling says KFC spent £23m opening 35 new stores, and £23m refurbishing a further 140. The final design, once kinks are ironed out, is due to be approved in the second half of 2011, after which it will be ready for roll-out. In the coming months, KFC will have to decide whether to let stores due for imminent refurbishment use the trial design or revert to tried and tested layouts. Fieldgate say that franchisees are already keen to start implementing elements of the Gensler concept.

It will be a gradual process, but this could eventually be the image of KFC’s restaurants of the future, as it attempts to show it can keep up with the demands of modern consumers.

Sector innovations

McDonald’s
As the largest brand in the market, McDonald’s has sustained more criticism and pressure than any other fast-food chain. One famous example is the McLibel trial – a long-running and controversial UK court action, in which the brand sued campaigners for statements made in leaflets about its business practices.

However, the turning point for the chain’s image overhaul was the wider introduction of healthier options to its menus, which followed Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Super Size Me, in which the filmmaker subsisted on McDonald’s food alone for an entire month to the substantial detriment of his health.

The restaurant has also focused more recent branding initiatives on its environmental credentials. In 2007, it started recycling cooking oil as biofuel for vehicles, and replaced some store facades with green signage to emphasise the message.

Pizza Hut
Faced with increasing competition from upmarket but affordable pizza restaurants such as Pizza Express, Pizza Hut underwent a branding exercise in 2008 to expand its menu. It added new pasta options, updated its salad bars and even temporarily renamed some of its UK restaurants Pasta Hut, in a PR stunt to attract new customers looking for more than just pizza.

Taco Bell
Taco Bell originally entered the UK market in the Eighties, but opened only a handful of stores which had all closed by the mid-Nineties. Since June this year, however, owner Yum! (which also owns Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken) has reintroduced the brand with two new stores – in the Lakeside Shopping Centre, Thurrock, and in Basildon. More are planned for 2011. Being relatively unknown in the UK, with little high street competition for Mexican fast-food, Taco Bell has had relative freedom over how to launch itself into the market. Its main focuses have been “craveable tastes” and “unbeatable value”, emphasising both its Mexican flavours and the fact that its 79p menu items enable it to compete on price with other fast-food chains.

Burger King
Burger King (BK) has had a troubled few years financially. Worldwide sales and profits both fell last year, blamed principally on the high proportion of BK’s business that is done in North America, where growth has stagnated. Recent efforts to inject life back into the brand have included the introduction of a more futuristic restaurant design in 2009. New additions have also been made to menus in the US in 2010, with BK selling Starbucks coffee and setting up Whopper bars at selected locations, allowing visitors to customise their burgers. A standalone BK Dessert Bar opened in London’s Westfield shopping centre last month.

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