KFC spells it out: Chain takes pride in being fried

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KFC is saying "to hell with healthy."

Just over a year after a bid to position its fare as healthful food backfired, the Yum Brands chain is making a 180-degree turn to embrace its fried finger-licking heritage-ignoring a the rising chorus of critics who blame fatty fast food for America's obesity epidemic.

KFC is reviving the full Kentucky Fried Chicken name it abandoned in favor of the more obscure initials, and bringing back the bucket it kicked in the 1990s and its "Finger Lickin' Good" tagline

"To hell with the healthy. stuff," said John R. Neal, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee with 155 stores and vice chairman of the chain's National Council and Advertising Co-Op. "Everybody talks `eat healthy,' but only the tree huggers and bark snappers" eat that way.

The moves come 14 months after the chicken chain settled with the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureaus for trying to promote its food as healthful.

"People have asked why we changed the name back in the '90s and that was because we offered more non-fried products," said a spokeswoman. "Consumers tell us they love Kentucky Fried Chicken and many of our customers never stopped calling us Kentucky Fried Chicken."

But there's a more bottom-line reason KFC's "store of the future," unveiled last week in Louisville, Ky., harks back to its lard-laden past: sales. After KFC launched its Oven Roasted line in May 2004, same-store sales dropped 3%. "We couldn't sell it to my secretary," Mr. Neal said.

Yum CEO David Novak conceded the product "did not meet expectations," while a fried chicken tie-in with Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. boosted sales. "We believe fried products that are closer to our DNA will provide more offense than introducing non-fried products," he said in an earlier conference call.

SOUTHERN COMFORT

KFC for now plans 50 stores to carry the revised name and look. A test of the concept in Washington, D.C., boosted business by 20%. Storefronts trumpet the Kentucky Fried Chicken name and display a modern, apron-clad Col. Sanders. Inside, the updated interior sports low tables and ottoman seats, a free digital jukebox and state-of-the-art kitchen.

In addition to its core fried-chicken products, the store offers Southern comfort foods such as collard greens and hot cinnamon apples, buttermilk popcorn shrimp, candy apple wings and sweet-potato pie.

As if that isn't enough, in August the chain will introduce flavored sauces for dipping. "We'll dip anything you want, from popcorn chicken to our new buttermilk popcorn shrimp," said the spokeswoman.

But she insists the chain hasn't abandoned its better-for-you initiatives like roasted chicken and salads, despite relatively weak sales. She said the restaurants have a new "green section" and that all company stores and 900 franchisee stores-about a quarter of the system-have full green menus with Tender Roast entrees, sandwiches, salads and entree bowls.

But it's clearly chicken that drives sales. KFC credits its 99-cent Snacker mini fried chicken sandwich for driving 10% gains in U.S. same store sales in a four-week period-touted as one of the most successful new-product introductions in the company's history. That success has bred a Buffalo Snacker and a Sausage Snacker and Sausage Bowl.

Though the new stores won't receive separate ad support, KFC has been edging closer to its southern roots in advertising with its "Chicken Capital U.S.A." effort via Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago.

"Every time a brand gets into trouble, one way to get out of it is to go back to your heritage and figure out what you used to be," said David Aaker, professor of marketing at University of California, Berkeley. "It was always unrealistic for them to be a player in the healthy-food space."

John Swan, a former advertising executive on KFC and now professor of marketing at St. John's University, said KFC has an authenticity that's less about fried chicken than it is about family gatherings after church or for a hearty lunch. "There's a nurturing to the brand that burgers can't replicate," he said. "They finally understood the essence of the brand."

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