Grilled or Fried? And What About the Brand?

Col. Sanders
For those of you who like to consider how trade marks play out in the broader socio-legal context, there is nothing better than a dispute between a franchisor and its franchisees. I acknowledge that a franchise also involves some combination of copyright, trade secrets (maybe even patents) as well as contract law and a smattering of competition law. But whatever the legal admixture of these additional elements, at the end of the day, a franchise dispute will invariably involve, directly or indirectly, the mark under which the franchised goods or services are sold and operated.

Once we go beyond the obvious mention of McDonald's, there is perhaps no more iconic franchise operation than KFC ("Kentucky Fried Chicken"). The image of Colonel Sanders, dressed in white, must certainly be one of the best-known instances where a founder has successfully fused his persona with the identification of his franchise operation (after all, how many of you could identify a picture of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc?). Disputes involving the KFC franchise therefore usually attract particular attention.

Such is the case in the item that appeared in the August 16-August 29 issue of Bloomberg Business Week. Entitled "At KFC, a Battle Among the Chicken-Hearted", reporter Burt Helm describes the dispute between some KFC franchisees and the franchisor company (Yum! Brands) over the company's decision in 2009 "to emphasize grilled chicken and sandwiches over KFC's bone-fried fare." According to the dissident franchisees, this move is responsible for falling sales at KFC (although this Kat wonders how one can disaggregate the effects of the Great Recession from this decline in sales).

Fried chicken and KFC have been identified with each other for as long as I can remember, and the slogan "finger lickin' good" was a short-hand way of conveying the centrality of the fried chicken product. One franchisee, whose affiliation with the operation dates back to 1963, recalled "fondly" how Colonel Sanders himself came to her franchise location, donned an apron, and showed her staff how to make (read: "fry") the chicken in accordance with the Colonel's Official Recipe (on which see here and here). As for today, however, not a chance: "They hire marketing guys with blue blazers who tell us what to do with our damn stores. But it's one thing to be behind the big mahogany desk calling the shots and another to be down the trenches", this franchisee observed.

A little more detail is appropriate here. Yum! Brands seems to have made a strategic decision to change the emphasis of the food fare offered by the franchisee restaurants in order to focus more on "health-conscious, on-the-go consumers." The result, at least in the eyes of the dissatisfied franchisees, is to "confuse customers and hurt the brand." In particular, the dispute focused on the "Unthink KFC" campaign, where the company sought to promote a grilled chicken product. Heresy, alleged some of the franchisees. who pooh-poohed the refocusing of the company's product image: "by and large the general public doesn't give a damn how many calories are in it."

Whatever the exact reason, the "Unthink KFC" campaign was dropped nationally in May of this year. But grilled chicken still remains a "bone" (sorry about that) of contention. A grilled chicken give away, launched on Oprah's television program, led to a much larger coupon redemption of grilled chicken products than the franchisees had in stock. The result was that franchisees ran out of food and had to confront angry customers. In addition to the unexpected additional costs that were borne by the franchisees for this promotion, it "started a continued downfall in trust." This promotion as well has been discontinued.

But where's the chicken?
And then there are the issues of short-term/long-term and differences in perspective. I suspect that at least some of the "guys wearing blue blazers" may be trying to take a longer-term, more strategic view of the placement of the KFC brand. If so, they will likely also be paying attention to matters such the perceived "healthiness" of their food products, for both regulatory and PR reasons. Franchisees will likely have a different time-line, where long-term changes in branding strategy must compete with tomorrow's sales figures at the restaurant till. This built-in tendency for possible divergence of opinion between these two sets of actors adds another level of complexity in the managing of this iconic brand.
Grilled or Fried? And What About the Brand? Grilled or Fried? And What About the Brand? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, October 06, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. Should we expect some franchisees or conspiracy theorists to say that introducing the grilled chicken allowed them to reintroduce the fried chicken later using cheaper oil...

    (I feel so cheap that this is an in-joke. When did I become an IP dweeb? It wasn't like this when I was young... I thought I'd do great things.... Important things. Noble things. I'm making in-jokes about Coke and chuckling to myself.)

  2. I've found 6 typos in this article and that's just based on one quick reading. Does the IPKat no longer care?

  3. @Anonymous: I've found the six and put them right. The Kat both knows and cares, but suffers from both fatigue and screen-blindness when he has been online for too long. He did however catch some whoppers at proof-reading stage ...

  4. Many thanks Jeremy.
    Just the one left:
    "there is perhaps no more iconic franchise operation that [sic] KFC".
    Does the Kat wish to advertise for volunteer proof-readers?

  5. @Anonymous: if I got six and missed one, I must have found one that you missed. Join the club!

  6. I guess that what the KFC franchisees bemoan is that the middle-aged, middle-class "blue blazer" management is trying to shape KFC's offering to their own taste, obviating the fact that they are nowhere near KFC's target demographic, which the franchisees are much better acquainted with.
    Of course, KFC's management is in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. One can only imagine the righteous screams of indignation in the press if such a flippant comment as "the general public doesn't give a damn how many calories" was ever attributed to KFC's management, rather than an anonymous franchisee...Even if most of the management very probably agrees quite wholeheartedly, they're certainly not going to be caught saying it out loud. Not after "Super Size Me".

  7. Readers may be interested to note that there was also a patent by the Colonel himself, US3156177,, for a method of pressure cooking the chicken, and later rapidly cooking it again with the spices etc. added.


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