KFC Relaunches Grilled Chicken, Hires 'Chief Chicken Officer'

Position Is Part of Chain's Rollout of a 'Cook Certification Program' That Could Be Featured in Upcoming Ads

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In the same week, KFC is relaunching its grilled chicken product and announcing a "chief chicken officer."

Aaron Person, a 25-year KFC veteran, has the curious title of the company's (and probably the world's) first chief chicken officer. In what some may view as yet another of the chain's PR stunts, KFC said Mr. Person's job will be to act as a spokesman for the rollout of the chain's new Cook Certification Program, an initiative that KFC cooks will participate in "as the chain works to ensure each and every restaurant location continues to maintain the quality Colonel Sanders demanded more than 70 years ago," according to a press release.

Mr. Person will also star in videos designed to reiterate how to best prepare the chain's original fried-chicken recipe. And he may appear in upcoming ads (current ads feature KFC cooks), though no specifics have been given.

The program is a continuation of the company's "So good" campaign launched in May 2010 -- its fifth change in ad direction in almost as many years -- that earlier this year evolved into "Today Is a KFC Day. Today Tastes So Good." Also earlier in the year, Barry Westrum took the marketing helm at KFC, replacing John Cywinski, who was promoted to president of the Yum Brands chain.

KFC this week also relaunched KGC, or Kentucky Grilled Chicken, a product first unveiled in 2009.The new grilled chicken is largely the same, but the chain says its white-meat chicken breasts are now 20% larger. The grilled chicken rollout is accompanied by a TV ad, created by KFC's agency, Interpublic Group of Cos.' DraftFCB.

KFC has also recently been advertising its $10 Sunday Bucket, a Sunday-only deal, but not in response to No. 2 chain Chick-fil-A, which is closed on Sundays. KFC spokesman Rick Maynard in an email said the Sunday Bucket promotion is not a jab at its rival, and that "KFC is synonymous with Sunday dinner. In fact, many of our restaurants still use the slogan 'Sunday dinner seven days a week.'"

Waffling between grilled and fried chicken, and flip-flopping on its name -- rebranding as KFC to get away from "fried," but then switching back to Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2005 before returning to KFC -- has confused consumers over the years. But Ron Paul, president at Technomic, said that these days restaurants have to broaden their appeal and cater to more consumers, including health-conscious ones, in order to stay competitive.

"In a sense, early on it was a mixed message, but as menus have expanded, restaurants are forced to offer multiple menu items," said Mr. Paul. He added that consumers are increasingly able to get chicken -- grilled and fried -- almost anywhere, including chains such as McDonald's and Burger King. So KFC offering grilled chicken helps stave off the so-called veto vote -- the idea that when consumers are trying to decide where to eat, they would pass up KFC for another chain with a healthier style of chicken.

KFC wasn't the only chicken chain to tout ostensibly healthier menu items in the last week. Popeyes unveiled its "Louisiana Leaux" platform, which includes brochures that give customers meal options for eating lighter at the chain. The program also introduced the Get Up and Geaux Kids Meal, which offers reduced fat, sodium and calorie fare for kids.

Fried-chicken servings were hit hard in recent years, so the focus on promoting grilled chicken at chicken chains is no surprise. Fried-chicken servings in U.S. restaurants were up 1% in the year ended March, according to NPD Group, an improvement from the year ended March 2010, when servings were down 14%. Grilled-chicken servings in the year ended March 2011 were down 2% and were flat in the prior year.

Though KFC didn't have a breakthrough first quarter -- sales were up only 1% from the prior-year period -- it's a step up from the 3.9% drop in sales, and 2.1% dip in the number of locations to 5,055 stores, it posted in 2010, according to Technomic. And while it is the category leader by a wide margin with 29% share, it still lost 1.4 share points in 2010 -- all while Chick-fil-A grew 11.4% in sales, gaining two share points to 22% with only 1,536 locations. Popeyes, the No. 3 player, posted a 2.5% gain in sales and eked out an additional two-tenths of a point of share to 10.1%.

Yum Brands last year spent $205.6 million in U.S. measured media, down from $234.3 million in 2009, according to Kantar. Popeyes spent about $51 million last year, and Chick-fil-A spent $26.2 million.

KFC and its franchisees not long ago were at odds over the focus on the company's products. The KFC National Council and Advertising Cooperative in January 2010 filed a suit against KFC that claimed management ignored franchisee pleas to focus on fried chicken, and instead devoted the advertising budget to promoting the new grilled chicken. Through the suit, the council sought to gain more control over national advertising. A Delaware judge in February ordered KFC and the franchisees to cooperate to determine the direction of the chicken chain's marketing, as he ruled that both share control of KFC's advertising.

Mr. Maynard did not offer much detail on what direction corporate and franchisees agreed upon, but said, "The lawsuit is in the past. Both KFC Corporation and our franchisees are focused on the future and driving this iconic brand forward," and "franchisees are fully supportive of the relaunch of Kentucky Grilled Chicken."

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