Yum Brands CMO on why marketers must leave their 'happy place'
Ken Muench holds a dual role that’s unique in the marketing industry. He is the chief marketing officer of Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and the smaller Habit Burger Grill. He is also chief strategy officer and co-founder of Collider Lab, a strategic consultancy that Yum acquired in 2015. Muench and the Collider team work with Yum’s brands, and some outside clients, to hone strategies and boost results.
Muench began his advertising career as a copywriter, then to strategic planning at agencies before co-founding Collider Lab. He writes about the marketing strategies implemented at Yum Brands and elsewhere in a new book with former Yum CEO Greg Creed, who left the business in 2019. In “R. E. D. Marketing: The Three Ingredients of Leading Brands,” Creed and Muench lay out their tactics tied to relevance, ease and distinctiveness.
Muench disusses his dual roles on the latest edition of the “Marketer’s Brief” podcast, which also sharing insights on why CMO need to come out of their "happy place" to make brands tick.
Below, some excerpts from the interview, which have been edited for length and clarity. (To hear the full conversation, click on the link above.)
How does your team fit in with the various chains that are part of the business?
Any one of the brands can tap into us. We don’t force our way onto anything. I do have a role within Yum, I am the CMO of Yum. We don’t do a ton of advertising. We work with each individual brand as much as they want. We end up working quite a bit with all the brands. We do most of their repositionings, we go into individual markets that are struggling, we help them think up a bunch of new products, (and) give them, basically, strategic guidance wherever it is needed. We end up doing several hundred projects every year with all of the brands.
Can you give a couple of examples of recent projects that were done by the Collider team or done in collaboration with the Collider team?
I would say most of what you’ve seen from Taco Bell in the last 10 years has been touched to some extent by Collider. Pretty much all the LTOs (limited-time offers), all the windows of advertising, all the positionings have been impacted by the strategy that we helped them set. So we’ll go out and do a bunch of research and work with the marketers on the brands, work with the agencies, and help land in a cool area. Everything from Doritos taco to naked chicken chalupa, the KFC fried chicken sandwich, we basically helped them write the strategy for all of those.
Do you embed with the team at the brand or do you visit with them and sort of check in?
We work extremely closely with all the brands. We’ll break off a small team from Collider and we’ll take two data people, a social scientist, and a marketer and myself or one of the other directors, and we’ll look up all the existing research out there, we’ll maybe dig up more research, we’ll bring in professors, influencers, authors, anybody to give us ideas.
And what we try to do is land in an area that is not just exciting and cool but rather has a really high degree of success. It’s usually a really fine-tuned positioning with really clear guidelines and guideposts. We do collaborate with the brands, get their feedback, and do these brainstorms.
Tell us a little bit about the role of being the CMO of Yum at the same time. What are your responsibilities in that position?
Yum’s role is to support the individual brands and make them more successful. We helped create the R.E.D. marketing coalition including all of the CMOs to discuss topics and land on big areas we need to focus on Yum-wide. I act as a sort of connector, if you will, help them see what’s coming down the line, help them adapt to it.
Do you think the setup is significantly different from the setups at other companies?
I don’t know of any other organization, period, that has that setup. It’s a very weird setup. It really was really insightful for Greg [Creed, Yum’s former CEO and Muench’s co-author] to do that. Because what it allowed was a level of involvement, I would say, that Yum has really never had, to that extent, on the individual pieces of business. I haven’t seen it anywhere, really, especially the part where we can work with outside companies.
Let’s talk about your new book, “R.E.D. Marketing.”
What we found as we started working with the individual brands and the individual CMOs around the world is that a CMO has a comfort space. A CMO has their safe, happy place and maybe that CMO is used to making their brands really, really culturally relevant … or making it easy to access … or they are really into the creative and create very highly distinctive campaigns. We started decoding this around the world as we started working in 150 countries for Yum, that you really couldn’t have that happy place anymore as a CMO, you had to have all three: relevance, specifically cultural relevance, ease, and distinctiveness.
If you are able to strengthen a CMO’s skill set in those three areas, it’s undeniable growth in sales. It just basically says you can’t be a niche CMO. You have to be a holistic CMO. It’s really bringing together all three aspects of being a CMO.
How do you apply it to other types of companies?
All it’s really saying is you as a person, or you as a brand, have to think about where culture is headed in your area and are you speaking that language? Are you offering something relevant to that culture or are you stuck behind? Most brands are stuck a little bit further behind. It’s saying that, it’s saying make your product easy to access. It works across the board. It’s difficult to envision it not working somewhere.
Did the pandemic bring any new insights into how brands can be relevant, have ease and have distinctiveness?
That was a huge test for R.E.D. There were three major shifts. If you remember pre-pandemic, everybody was excited about innovation and coolness and newness. That went out the window in a flash, and what instead became highly culturally relevant is: are you helping? It was all about people. Because it wasn’t about innovation, it was about comfort. And ease just became the name of the game. Areas such as digital delivery, contactless pickup, and faster apps, grew. Everything just became focused on ease.
For CMOs of smaller companies or organizations, where would you suggest they look for trends?
It’s pretty easy to call up a professor at a university. You’d be amazed at how much help you get. What they have to share is brilliant. It’s untapped genius. Run your own research with friends, develop your own ease strategy.
We also suggest really looking into intern programs, especially if they’re diverse interns, because it adds a different perspective that you don’t have at your company right now. They’re dialed into culture and you’re not, most likely.