In TV spots created by KFC's ad agency, DraftFCB Chicago, customers who buy and eat the new boneless line will be depicted, in sudden panic, as if they'd just swallowed whole chicken bones. Executives hope the phrase will instantly go viral and become a pop-cultural obsession, reminiscent of Wendy's old charmer of a slogan, "Where's the beef?"
The chain that's long been the butt of late-night comic jabs is eagerly entering the 21st century. It's pondering a produce-rich sandwich line next year (maybe a wrap), and soups, salads, perhaps even smoothies, the year after that.
No one's ready to call it a better-for-you fast-food joint, but KFC has no choice but to enter the brave new world of boneless. About six in 10 consumers prefer chicken without bones, reports Technomic, the research firm.
"Our Holy Grail is chicken on the bone," says marketing chief Jason Marker. "We are taking our hero product and drastically changing it."
Most Millennials don't know that chicken has bones in it, Marker says, only half in jest.
That's partially thanks to McDonald's Chicken McNuggets and Chick-fil-A, the wildly successful, chicken off-the-bone chain with strong Southern roots that surpassed KFC in annual U.S. sales last year and emerged as the nation's biggest fast-food chicken chain.
Cywinski says he can apply to KFC the same sort of turnaround plan that helped to reinvent a struggling McDonald's nearly two decades ago.
"It won't happen overnight, but we will transform how people think about the brand," Cywinski says. While recently struggling in the crucial China market, KFC already appears to be in a mini-turnaround along with much of the fast-food industry in the U.S., where KFC's same-store sales were up about 4% last year, Cywinski says.
But there are skeptics. Among them, Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a researcher that measures consumer loyalty. It found that even KFC's best customers only rate the brand as average, scoring a 76 out of 100 . By comparison, Subway's best customers ranked the brand at 95 out of 100.
"KFC is a brand with a lot of baggage," says Passikoff. "You walk by the place, and it may smell good, but you just know it's not good for you."
But Ron Paul, president of Technomic, thinks KFC may finally be on the right course. "The idea of going to get the family a bucket of chicken from KFC is so 1950s," says Paul. "Sunday dinner with a bucket of KFC just doesn't work anymore."
While KFC isn't kicking the bucket, it will certainly de-emphasize it. Going forward, the brand will focus on individual meals made with boneless chicken.
At least one customer gives it a thumbs-up. Virginia Massie, a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom from Charlottesville, Va., with kids ages 2, 3 and 5, stopped in the Clifton store that was handing out free plates of the boneless chicken.
Her kids scarfed it down, and she says that she likes not having to worry about bones -- even though the new boneless offerings cost about 25 cents more per piece.
"I don't mind paying more for some more convenience," she says. "I choose my battles."
That sentiment was echoed by 20-year-old Walter Perez, a Centreville, Va., resident and student. "It's less work for me and less messy," he says. "I'd buy it."
This isn't where KFC stops, but where it starts.
The brand plan will replace the current chicken fillet in its chicken sandwiches with boneless.
By next year, says Cywinski, KFC will begin to roll out an expanded line of chicken sandwiches. A wrap version, with lettuce and tomato, is currently in testing, too. KFC will stop rolling out new chicken products on the bone.
Within five years, chicken on the bone products of all kinds may ultimately disappear from KFC, says Cywinski. "Our consumers will decide that."
What would Colonel Sanders say? That might depend on who you ask.
Many Millennials don't realize that KFC's founder, Colonel Harland David Sanders, was a real, honest-to-goodness person.
"The guy with the goatee -- I thought he was made up," says Eduardo Baralt, a 19-year-old student from Centreville. "You gotta be kidding.."
Nope. He was real, all right. And if The Colonel were here today, insists Cywinski, "this is exactly what he'd do."
Virginia Massie, with daughter Sophia, 3, tries out the new boneless, skinless chicken at a KFC in Clifton, Va. "I don't mind paying more for some more convenience," she says.
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