About 300 of KFC’s top marketers from around the world will descend upon the company’s global headquarters in Dallas this week to share best practices, industry trends and menu ideas. It’s at this Marketing Planning Meeting—which has been held since 2006—where much of the brand’s menu magic happens.
If you’re not fully familiar with what that “magic” entails, consider KFC product launches from around the world: KFC Thailand’s shrimp doughnuts, Singapore’s egg tarts, Australia’s nacho box, the Double Down Dog (a hot dog wrapped in a bun-sized piece of fried chicken) the Mac ‘n Cheese Zinger (with a bun made of mac ‘n cheese) and, of course, the original Zinger Chicken Sandwich, which originated in Trinidad and Tobago in 1984 and finally came to the U.S. in 2017. (Australia sells more than 22 million Zingers each year.)
The company’s massive scale of 22,000-plus restaurants in more than 135 countries certainly hasn’t slowed down its innovation wheel. In fact, KFC just launched a chicken tender taco in France, debuted green chili crunch chicken in Malaysia and added “Chizza” (pizza with a fried chicken crust) to the menu in the Philippines. In Canada, the chain unveiled Chachos earlier this year, a take on nachos but with KFC’s chicken tenders instead of tortilla chips.
The scope of menu creativity is impressive and the approach has been quite successful. KFC Indonesia rolled out chicken skin fries earlier this summer, for example, and the product sold out on day one. The company’s vegan Imposter Burger, launched in June in the U.K., sold out in just four days.
KFC is able to set this pace because it has 18 food innovation teams throughout the world filled with culinarians with big imaginations. Simultaneously, the company stringently adheres to its brand standards (the very 11 herbs and spices that put the chain on the map), thanks to a four-person Food Innovation Team based out of its Dallas headquarters.
I recently had the opportunity to spend the day with this team to see firsthand how some of these ideas are brought to life in the KFC Global kitchen. What I witnessed was a group of food enthusiasts with deep global experiences and a deeper appreciation for the work they’re doing.
The team is led by Ana Maria Basurto, a Mexico City native who joined the team in 2015 and is tasked with “guarding” the KFC brand standards while expanding its culinary portfolio.
Jacinta Pounsett is the senior scientist for FIT, working with KFC’s markets to develop a nutrition strategy and identify opportunities for innovation. She started her career with KFC Australia.
Gaana Nagaraj, a food innovation technologist, heads up poultry innovation and development and also leads seasoning and marinade developments. She moved to the U.S. from India, where she was born and raised.
The fourth member of the team is Robert Merrill, associate manager who supports the alignment of the chain’s signature recipes and provides protocols for standard products. He received a master’s degree in food science and technology from Texas A&M.
That this particular team includes four people from diverse international backgrounds is notable.
“A major challenge happening now in the restaurant space is to stay relevant as global demographics shift,” said James Fripp, Yum Brands’ chief diversity and inclusion officer. “If this team can’t work with multiple cultures from around the world, what we’re doing is not going to work.”
Indeed, the way KFC approaches innovation is not centralized. The cuisines are different, as are the cultures and preferences.
“We leverage that expertise around the world and serve as a guardrail for the 18 units. We want them to take our food and make it their own, adapted for their flavors,” Pounsett said.
Asian consumers, for example, prefer hot and spicy flavors, while the brand’s extra tasty crispy recipe performs well in Latin America and Mexico.
“We spend time working on how to elevate our 11 herbs and spices for each market. Our strength as a global company is leveraging food innovation and marketing teams around the world to have a better understanding of what consumers prefer,” Basurto said.
Challenges exist, such as how to fulfill volume demands at such a large scale and how to roll out exciting new products that meet both brand and operational standards. Many of these kinks are ironed during the MPM event.
But much of the time spent at that event this week will be on the exchange of new and big ideas on how to keep KFC’s menu exciting in markets all over the world.
“We get to taste products that have been the most successful in different markets. We want to foster that pride within our community so people are willing to learn what other markets are doing and then adopt it,” Basurto said.
KFC’s Chizza is a great example of a successful product launched in a market, originating in the Philippines, and adopted elsewhere. The menu item is now available in more than 15 countries across Europe, Asia and Latin America, specifically in Germany, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Puerto Rico, Korea, Thailand and India.
Considering the brand’s momentum of late, expect these types of market-to-market translations to continue at a staggering pace, especially as consumers are becoming more adventurous with their palates.
During Q1, Yum Brands’ KFC division delivered system sales growth of 9%. CEO Greg Creed specifically credited creative products for the performance.
“The innovation that’s happening is (driving KFC’s momentum),” Creed said during the earnings call. “We’re seeing a lot of great innovation, flavor innovation, on existing forms and new form innovation also occurring.”