KFC’s CMO brings marketing and innovation closer together as brand partnerships gather pace

KFC launched its collaboration with Cheetos this week

KFC’s upgrade of its food innovation program is beginning to pay dividends in earned media and sales. Now, its chief marketing officer is intent on removing all possible friction between marketing, innovation, operations and her agency to turn around menu boards even faster.

KFC’s latest brand partnership has played out as a series of milestones for the brand.

Teaming with Cheetos saw it hand over the costume of Colonel Sanders to another brand mascot for the first time. The speed at which it moved between finalizing the menu and launching it in restaurants was the fastest it had turned around a concept, and it was also the quickest it had moved between two separate brand partnerships: its tie-in with Cinnabon launched in April while the Frito-Lay deal hit counters just over two months later.

The reveal of KFC x Cheetos, which had fans of the brands lined up around the block at the New York City launch last week, is representative of the speed at which KFC now wants to move when it comes to food innovation, said its chief marketing officer, Andrea Zahumensky.

The marketer joined the company after nearly two decades at Procter & Gamble in late 2017; less than a year later she clearly proved intentions on the innovation front by unveiling the brand’s first ever line of chicken and waffles.

The launch set in stone KFC’s ‘slow, slow quick’ approach to the distribution of limited-edition items.

“It took us years to come up with the waffle we were going to sell, because serving a waffle that was crisp and hot and fresh enough was a really tough nut to crack,” she recalled. “Our food innovation team is hard at work cracking how we work with our suppliers, creating the menu items and then working out how to make in the back of the restaurant.

“Once we find [the perfect recipe], we go very fast. Our teams – marketing and ops – are just really focused on getting it out in the market.”

Zahumensky has spent the last year gradually moving the food innovation and marketing teams closer together in order to perfect the baton pass between menu creation and sales. She calls the company's head of innovation her “partner in crime”, and has recently hired an innovation lead to sit on her own team.

“They’re leading a lot of that work – partnering with that food innovation team to bring their ideas to life faster and more impactfully.”

Perhaps Zahumensky’s most radical strategy in her quest to eliminate friction was to consolidate all of its accounts, including media, data and analytics, into Wieden+Kennedy in May of last year. The “strategic business decision” means that marketing and media now sit alongside each other and plan launches at speed.

“I come from CPG, and I didn't know how fast agencies could go until we had to do this in QSR,” Zahumensky said. “Wieden+Kennedy are as passionate about this brand, its turnaround and growth as we are. We set a plan together and we make sure we have the right staffing on both sides to be able to be agile and go just really, really fast.”

So far, the strategy of innovation appears to be paying off. The brand was cited as a key performer in Yum Foods’ recent financials, recording its strongest growth in three years.

This can also be attributed to brand investment elsewhere, however: sales were significantly boosted by markets such as Indonesia and Japan, while the company has steadily been opening more units in the US following the steady closure of 1,400 since 2004.

“Strong, healthy brands aren’t just growing sales and transactions, they’re shoring up their footprint,” Brian Cahoe, KFC US’ chief development officer, told Restaurant Business.

But partnerships and innovations such as KFC x Cheetos are key to building brand love beyond quarterly sales. Zahumensky’s team are choosing limited and new menu items with care, paying particular attention to what is big in food culture among millennials and Gen Z.

“This is the speed at which you'll see innovations from now on in,” she said. “They won't all be partnerships, but we really are committed to innovation.

“I think it plays a big role in our growth – we're well on our way to delivering our sixth consecutive year of same store sales growth, which we're really proud of, and I think innovation's going to play a big role in delivering on an entire decade.”

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