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Can KFC Change Its Feathers?

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Something interesting is happening in the Highlands. At the intersection of Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue, Louisville-based KFC — the second-largest fast food chain on the planet — is launching a new restaurant concept that flies the fast food coop for a more fast-casual, upmarket feel.

Calling to the secret blend of herbs and spices that anchor KFC lore, KFC 11 will jettison the iconic buckets and arterial atrocities for which it’s known, trading them for more sophisticated offerings like flatbreads, salads and “indulgent sweets.” And while the new concept will still serve up Colonel’s Sanders’ Original Recipe fried chicken, it will only be available sans bones — and sans Sanders.

As fast food old-timers like Wendy’s, Arby’s and McDonald’s strive to maintain relevancy among growing competition from newer brands like Chipotle, Panera and Qdoba, KFC’s move isn’t wholly unexpected. But for a brand so moored in finger-lickin’ down-home goodness, will a shift toward sophistication work? Will people buy it?

Granted, KFC 11 is (of now) a one-store test concept; it’s a safe, small-scale experiment, not a complete brand overhaul, so if it fails, little is lost. But if KFC 11 goes over well, it could become an invaluable real-world testing ground for all kinds of innovations like new menu items, pricing models and enhancements to the customer experience which could eventually trickle down to traditional KFC stores.

Without a doubt, I’m anxious to see how KFC 11 fares in a world that believes the brand is synonymous with greasy, calorie-loaded, health-free food. However, what I find most interesting about KFC 11 is that it will give KFC’s marketers a platform on which to push the limits of the KFC idea — to find out how far the brand will stretch.

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