Will KFC finally solve its identity crisis?

With parent company Yum slowing down in China, the fried chicken chain may have to stop trying to be everything to everyone.

By Minyanville.com Dec 5, 2012 12:33PM
Close up of fried chicken finger copyright AlamySometimes it seems like KFC is trying to do everything. Yum Brands' (YUM) massive chicken company, which went through a kind of menu revolution over the past few years, has gone through so many phases and so many faces that it's unrecognizable as the same place my Little League team used to swarm after our games.
 
This is obviously at least partially due to the chain's need to adapt to a consumer base that is (or at least claims to be) increasingly unwilling to stuff fats, starches, and carbohydrates into a bucket and submerge its collective face therein. Dry-rubbed grilled chicken is a star player on KFC's window posters. Green beans, no longer a shameful secret on the menu like an ugly cousin of the much more popular mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese, cascade instead through KFC's advertisements like a brilliant green waterfall or clippings of the Jolly Green Giant's hair.
 
 On the other hand, items like the Famous Bowl (once described by comedian Patton Oswalt as "a failure pile in a sadness bowl") and the obscene Double Down sandwich continue to be massively popular, so much so that KFC has recently added everyone's favorite food-improver to the Famous Bowl to create the Cheesy Bacon Bowl, advertisements for which seem almost provocative, as if KFC is daring its critics to object to its decadence.
 
This duality has created something of an identity crisis for KFC, and indeed for Yum in general, since many of the corporation's restaurants straddle the line of nutritional respectability. Can a fast food restaurant really be both unhealthy and healthy? Restaurants like Chipotle (CMG) have carved out a considerable place in the market for natural ingredients and fresh preparation. Can these restaurants capitalize on KFC's inability or unwillingness to eliminate fat bombs like the Double Down from its menu?
 
One answer may simply be that KFC makes enough money in China that it can afford to maintain the unhealthy image it has cultivated in the U.S. KFC absolutely dominates the Chinese fast food market and has plans to expand further. However, its product lines in China are vastly different from its U.S. offerings (the Chinese products include traditional Chinese soups, panko-crusted chicken, etc.), which means that while the chain is hugely popular in China, it can't parlay that success back to the U.S.
 
Another problem for the chicken chain to deal with is its target market. At the moment, it seems as if KFC can't decide whether to market primarily to families or to individuals. McDonald's (MCD) and Yum's own Taco Bell have made big strides by abandoning the family image almost entirely. Taco Bell ads feature trendy young people Instagramming their fluorescent tacos (see here on YouTube), while McDonald's likes showing hipsters falling in love while biting into Angus Third Punders (see here on YouTube).
 
KFC, on the other hand, vacillates between showing individuals happily scarfing chicken sandwiches or the aforementioned bowls and showing families using KFC's buckets-of-food system to feed a dozen people easily. The most recent campaign plays on the trope of irritating relatives being loud during the holiday season, which plays to the "family" side of things, but the Famous Bowls continue to be the chain's best-selling item. Until KFC can figure out who's buying chicken, it will continue to play second fiddle to Taco Bell in Yum's U.S. operations. Even more troubling is that Yum recently announced that its fourth-quarter sales in China were down, according to SeekingAlpha. If KFC isn't pulling its weight, it may be time for the company to figure out a clear target market and tighten up its campaigns accordingly.

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Tags: CMGMCDYUM
58Comments
Dec 5, 2012 3:07PM
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I sure would like a bucket of "original colonel" right now!
Dec 5, 2012 3:34PM
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KFC, your identity crisis are that you are identified as being WAY over priced, and you have lost your niche.

What you once had to go to KFC for, you can now go to any supermarket deli, and get more for less, at equal or better quality.
Dec 5, 2012 4:30PM
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First the quality of the food went down, then the prices went up...

Maybe they should bring Colonel Sanders back and focus on the friend chicken again

Dec 5, 2012 4:01PM
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Here's the deal... when I want a really tasty grease "hit", it is hard to beat KFC.  I only visit the Colonel for junk food, NOT healthy stuff.  About twice a year I'm like a KFC junkie.  Must have KFC, MUST!

Forget the green beans.  Mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw and a biscuit. However, even I can resist the fake butter packets (if there is anyone out there that eat those my hat is off to you). 

 

Dec 5, 2012 4:25PM
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Agree with just about all the comments...sides are horrific....packet-O-fake butter is nasty....very expensive for chicken.....but the original recipe tastes so damn good. Wish the "original extra crispy" was back. Every once in a while, KFC is just a perfect blend of herbs/spices that tickle the taste buds. Love Popeyes too, but they are not everywhere. The identity crisis is that KFC needs to stick to chicken and chicken only. BTW...wings HAVE bones...the heck with any place doing "boneless wings".....just strips in sheeps clothing.
Dec 5, 2012 4:48PM
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Agreed on the identity crisis being caused by over priced product.  I live in a small town in Arizona and the KFC was so outrageoulsy expensive that the joint finally went under.  too bad, i did like the original chicken but definitely it was too pricey.

Dec 5, 2012 4:49PM
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If people would just eat what they like and quite reading these wall street articles about the bad choices that KFC and all the rest of the restaurants are making, in there opinion, everyone would be a lot happier, and more satisfied. Long  live KFC and all fast food places.
Dec 5, 2012 5:55PM
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One thing I notice is that all the elderly people eat in the KFC Restaurants, it must be the fountain of youth, after all the founder of KFC lived to his 90's.  Maybe you need to stop listening to food police idiot Drs. and the government experts and start asking the older 80 to 90 years old what they have been eating.  I know a lot will say bacon, bread and all the things they are telling us not to.  My mother is 87 and some of the 65 year old health freaks look a lot worst then she does, but of course being my mom I think she looks great and for over 45 years she has eaten KFC almost every Sunday and during the week.  KFC has the three essentials; Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats look it up it is the building block of our body.  And concerning the high prices they are actually better priced then the crap you get at Chickfalalaa.  I could go on but it would be a waste of more of my time especially since most of the health nuts voted for Obama.  I love KFC it taste great and is healthy for you.  What is unhealthy for you is eating too much of anything, period.

Dec 5, 2012 4:53PM
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IT'S NOT KFC DAMMIITT IT IS "COL. SANDER'S KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN" !!

Dec 5, 2012 4:48PM
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I'll take Bojangles anyday over KFC... KFC is WAY overpriced and the sides are awful... even the loved potatoes and gravy, and especially the mac and cheese. 
Dec 5, 2012 5:35PM
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number 1 your prices are way to high & your chicken thighs are nothing but bright yellow fat.I can say you still make the best cold slaw i have ever tasted.your chicken years ago used to be really good .
Dec 5, 2012 5:51PM
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KFC provides the best of three worlds-- my wife and I can eat for less than $15, including drinks. She can have healthy grilled chicken and I'll have the fried variety. Why should they specialize in anything? Target market? Anyone who doesn't want to spend an arm and a leg for a meal out and can't afford to pay a 15% tip on top of already high prices at higher end eateries. KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken if you prefer is not cuisine. Never was. Never will be.  It is what it is. Bon appetit! :) 
Dec 5, 2012 4:10PM
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Well,do you want a really tasty meal...or do you want to live forever....Feed Me....:o)
Dec 5, 2012 3:46PM
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I don't eat at KFC any longer.  Food doesn't taste good anymore so I've gone BONNIFIED!  Yep, I eat Popeye's.  The best chicken on the planet!
Dec 5, 2012 4:47PM
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I obviously do not know what KFC's secret recipe is but the manner in which the bones just fall apart and kind of dissolve when you bite into a piece has always been a turn-off for me. Southern Fried Chicken is best. I have always loved it and would rather eat it than any other fast food. Popeyes is just the best as far as I'm concerned. It tastes like real chicken.  
Dec 5, 2012 5:07PM
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Had spicy wings for lunch--more like pidgeon wings...jeez!
Dec 5, 2012 5:42PM
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The poor Col.  he's  probably clucking in his grave right now....RIP   Harland....
Dec 5, 2012 6:26PM
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Kentucky fried chicken has awesome chicken, but they are over priced in my opinion. My family would indulge in a bit more KFC if there prices were better. Those tators and gravy and a side of perfect slaw with some original colonel is really hard to resist, but until the prices come down a bit....my family is going to have to drive on by for now and just enjoy the free scent of perfectly fried chicken.
Dec 5, 2012 5:10PM
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Most of these reports fail to recognize that the diet watching crazies do not make up a very large part of the fast food customer base.  Whether a doubel Whopper with cheese is healthy or not is farthest from my mind when ordering up.  For fast food chains to bounce from one fad to another is counterproductive to maintaining whatever success they have gained over the years.  If your poor health says you should lose weight, then stay out of them.   As for 99% of the population; "Keep selling greasy, crispy delicious chicken, mac and cheese with extra butter for the biscuit and people will still come in to buy it once in a while.
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