Push toward “healthier” fast-food gets KFC franchisees offside

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 13th January 2010

KFC franchisees in the US have initiated court proceedings against the owner of the KFC brand over a debate as to the direction of their marketing campaigns.

The world’s most famous provider of fried chicken has headed along a ‘healthier food’ path over recent months, with much of their advertising spend directed toward their new grilled chicken products. But franchisees are concerned the focus on grilled chicken is to the detriment of the company.

The KFC National Council and Advertising Cooperative, a leading franchisee coalition and designer of marketing programs, argues that KFC President and Chief Concept Officer – Roger Eaton – has an obsession with grilled chicken that is unhealthy for the chain.

In the suit, franchisees contend that the company believes the future of KFC is dependent on the success of grilled chicken and not their cornerstone fried products.

The complaint centres on who is in charge of their advertising policy.

KFC owner Yum! Brands has dismissed the claims as “baseless” and is hoping the dispute will be resolved quickly.

”Yum! Brands fully expects to win the suit and minimise the waste of time and money spent on it so that we can continue to satisfy our customers and grow the business,” Jonathan Blum, a senior vice-president at Yum!, said – according to the Washington Post.

The grilled chicken products had been introduced to ensure those shying away due to a lack of healthy options would have a reason to visit the chain. And the company says sales have been robust – set to almost top the US$1 billion mark in its first year.

The company’s Chief Executive recently labelled the menu addition as an “unqualified success”, although same-store sales have failed to ignite.

Research elsewhere does indeed support the case of the brand owner, with consumer studies indicating that fast-food chains with healthy options were more likely to be frequented by the public and, ironically, lead to unhealthier choices at the counter.

What this effectively means is that fast-food chains like KFC and McDonald’s – who have relied on products that are toward the top of the food pyramid – can actually boost sales of their traditional favourites by having healthy choices on their menu to alleviate consumer guilt.

It’s an effect called “vicarious goal fulfillment”, in which a person can feel a goal has been met if they have taken some small action, like considering the salad – or grilled chicken – without ordering it.

Gavan Fitzsimons, a Professor of Marketing and Psychology at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, led research into the theory last year discovering the delicious irony.

Participants in a lab experiment possessing high levels of self-control related to food choices (as assessed by a pre-test) avoided french fries, the least healthy item on a menu, when presented with only unhealthy choices. But, when a side salad was added to this menu, they became much more inclined to take the fries. A couple of variations of this test yielded similar results.

Although fast-food restaurants and vending machine operators have increased their healthy offerings in recent years, “analysts have pointed out that sales growth in the fast-food industry is not coming from healthy menu items, but from increased sales of burgers and fries,” Mr Fitzsimons advised. “There is clearly public demand for healthy options, so we wanted to know why people aren’t following through and purchasing those items.”

“In this case, the presence of a salad on the menu has a liberating effect on people who value healthy choices,” he added. “We find that simply seeing, and perhaps briefly considering, the healthy option fulfills their need to make healthy choices, freeing the person to give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice.”

And those looking for supporting stats for the research need only look at the world’s largest burger chain – McDonald’s – which has been one of the premier performers over the past year, yet it has been their core menu items and new premium products leading the way.

And, if KFC franchisees believe in pushing the fried products, then Fitzsimons’ research suggests they should support their brand owner’s plans for grilled chicken as long as they leave their core menu items untouched.

“What this shows is that adding one or two healthy items to a menu is essentially the worst thing you can do,” Mr Fitzsimons said. “Because, while a few consumers will choose the healthy option, it causes most consumers to make drastically worse choices.”

Australian food law expert FoodLegal’s Joe Lederman has meanwhile made the point that the National Heart Foundation of Australia might need to reconsider its policy of endorsing some fast-food options in the wake of such findings.

Lederman said that the National Heart Foundation’s heart ‘tick’ (logo) endorsement may have the same perverse effect of attracting customers to consume higher quantities of the less healthy options available in the same fast-food outlet.

“The consumer research is very telling and ought to rattle the Heart Foundation and other endorsers of so-called ‘healthier food options’ to rethink what they have been doing.

“It’s a bit like a Jewish Rabbi being asked to bless part of the food on a non-Kosher menu,” Lederman said.