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Grilled is great, but can KFC sell it?


Four years.

That's how long Kentucky Fried Chicken has worked to perfect its newest offering, Kentucky Grilled Chicken, a bone-in product not being tested in seven U.S. markets.

One year.

That's the span KFC's marketing minions have to figure out how to promote KGC when it goes nationwide next spring. For a 65-year-old brand with an identity linked inextricably to its southern-fried signature — and all its nutritional baggage — the chain faces the formidable challenge of convincing consumers the grilled option is decidedly more healthful.

So far, KFC officials assert, the signs point to a strong product that will transform the brand. Test market sales show consumers who long ago abandoned KFC because of health reasons are coming back to buy KGC. Not only do they like the taste, they appreciate its vastly reduced calories, fat and sodium.

KFC won't say how much it plans to spend on the upcoming national marketing splash, but it's clear that considerable resources will used to promote the grilled message. New outdoor store signs will read "Kentucky Fried and Grilled Chicken," and lighted "Now Grilling" signs are ready for store windows. New packaging will promote both products equally, signaling that both can be mixed, matched and requested interchangeably on combo plates.

Franchisees in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Indianapolis say marketing to date has run the gamut from light-hearted TV commercials to in-store point-of-purchase materials. Brian Shinn, regional operations director for Harman Management in Colorado Springs, says he's looking forward to a return to the broadcast marketing that boosted sales in the early going. The KGC test in his market is two-and-a-half years old.

"We had good support [from] two TV commercials that helped sales a lot," Shinn says. But sales softened considerably when the commercials stopped more than a year ago. Couponing revived sales some, but not enough to match the TV promos. "We really wish we could have more advertising to get the word out to people. I'll be glad when that changes later on."

When that day comes, expect the message to be hot on "grilled." KFC president Gregg Dedrick says test results show consumers view KGC as a "step above fast food," and that tells him that both the marketing and product are on target. Early adopters of KGC, he adds, are current customers, people who like the chain's fried chicken but want greater choice.

"Right behind them was a high trial rate of light and non-users," he adds. "They hear the word 'grilled' and they're tuned into that. Their ears perk up."

ATV commercial soon set to air features Dedrick standing in front of a new KFC store explaining the addition of "Grilled" to its name. Ads shown to focus groups revealed participants preferred to hear news about the change from the president himself.

But don't think that means Dedrick's face will become as omnipresent as Colonel Sanders' — at least not if he can help it. "The idea to do this, I can assure you, did not come from me," he says, laughing. "And, no, this is not the beginning of [another] Dave Thomas either." Thomas, the founder of Wendy's, made his first fortune as a KFC franchisee.

While the current KGC offerings are limited to one, KFC chief food innovation officer Doug Hasselo says new grilled flavors, entrées and snacks are in the pipeline. He says those will help maximize operators' investment in the new oven used to produce KGC — KFC won't disclose the cos — and he predicts upcoming flavors like rosemary-citrus, orange-chipotle and honey BBQ will convince customers KFC's menu extends well beyond fried foods.

"As you can imagine, with Kentucky Fried Chicken being part of your name, trying to get people to understand that you have these non-fried options available now is something we have communicate well," Hasselo says. "Changing people's mindset about what KFC has to offer is a big part of our testing process."

TAGS: Marketing
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