KFC UK's lighter ways: The big chicken 'pivots' as QSR world watches

| by S.A. Whitehead
KFC UK's lighter ways: The big chicken 'pivots' as QSR world watches

KFC U.K. and Ireland is vowing to slash one-fifth of the calories from its menu in less than seven years in a move that's just as eye-opening as the impetus behind it: the English government. Specifically, it's the state-sponsored healthcare system in the U.K., which the brand said wants its citizens to slim down in the name of health.

The government, which foots the bill for its citizens' health care, would probably like to see that bill go down a bit since the country's coffers are dwindling to pay for medical repercussions of people who eat too much. 

But, the fact that the British contingent of the "finger-lickin'" chicken chain is taking on the substantial challenge of cutting 20 percent of the calories speaks volumes on a volume of subjects, including the status of QSR marketing today, how we view personal health responsibility and government-sponsored healthcare, as well as life in countries where citizens pay for their own medical care. That is certainly the case in the U.S. for most Americans, and though this is the chain's home base, no such similar fat-slashing menu makeover is planned for the brand here. 

In its company information about the decision, KFC U.K. and Ireland leadership said the reduction initiative is just one part of a "long-running strategy to improve consumer choice," to follow the country's health campaign, "Public Health England." it aims to reduce calories with: 
•    Recipe changes. 
•    New menu items. 
•    Implementation of "trial behavior programs" to prompt customers to make healthier menu choices."

Launched in March by healthcare leaders, the initiative is pretty specific about what it expects from citizens regarding their diets. Recommendations include 400-calorie breakfasts, 600-calorie lunches and dinners and "balanced choices" in between meals. 

By 2020, KFC said it will introduce more lunch and dinner dishes under 600 calories, and by 2019, KFC will be changing its existing side dishes to boost choice, taste and variety in a way that helps customers get their five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, as recommended.

In fact, in its March 6 press release about the new low-calorie push in the U.K., Public Health England said, "Obesity affects us all, as it is a burden on the NHS (National Health Service) and local authorities. The NHS spends around £6 billion ($7.9 billion) a year treating obesity-related conditions. Obesity-related health problems also keep people out of work, stifling their earnings and wider economic productivity.

At that time, the British government challenged food-related businesses to help fight the good fight, as they say, by changing recipes, cutting portion sizes and pushing customers to buy lower-calorie items. Specifically, Public Health England said the program covers items like pizza, meat and sandwich items, snacks and ready-to-it fare. And this is why:

"If the 20 percent target is met within five years," the March press release said, "more than 35,000 premature deaths could be prevented and around £9 billion ($11.9 billion) in NHS healthcare and social care costs could be saved over a 25-year period."

So KFC, for one, is going all in. By 2020, it will introduce more lunch and dinner dishes under 600 calories, and by 2019, KFC will change its existing side dishes to boost choice, taste and variety in a way that helps customers get their five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, as recommended.

Chicken-less chicken

But the item planned for the new menu that has made the most news, however,  is the brand's vegetarian center-of-plate option expected later this year, a.k.a. chicken-less chicken.

QSRweb fielded a number of questions with the brand via both its U.S. corporate offices and its leadership in the U.K. and Ireland, but the brand would only provide the press release it has disseminated to media previously, leaving little information about the details that might be interesting to know in advance. 

So while it's good to know the longtime chain with the largely high-calorie offerings is turning over a new leaf in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, it would also be interesting to know details, like when this initiative was first being considered and why, since it surely started long before the March health service announcement. 

And also, why isn't KFC extending this initiative throughout first-world countries where obesity is — pardon the pun — a huge problem. That is perhaps nowhere as true as here in the brand's own neighborhood of the good ol' U.S.A. After all, though our public coffers do not pay the lion's share of healthcare costs, many Americans are still vastly overweight —  present company included. 

Low-cal and light drinks

Other questions revolve around other parts of the initiative, like the brand's pledge in the U.K.  and Ireland to provide "only low- or zero-calorie carbonated soft drinks."

This begs the question of whether those beverages will include artificial sweeteners, which some inconclusive scientific studies attribute with weight gain. In fact, while so many brands are making lighter and more "natural" ingredient-based beverages now to meet customer demands for healthier eating, the question remains why most also still only offer artificial sweeteners for their unsweetened beverage offerings and why some fail to offer unsweetened versions of drinks altogether.

This practice forces those customers who want to lose some calories to either give up and take on the substantial calories in sweetened drinks or resort to water, unsweetened coffee or tea, since studies have directed those who wish to lose weight to steer clear of artificial sweeteners. 

Whether KFC U.K. and Ireland will also go in this direction is not known, but particularly in the U.K., where tea is such an essential of the daily diet, it will be instructive for others in foodservice to see how KFC U.K. plays it. After all, the naturally occurring lower-calorie sweeteners like stevia extract are typically far more expensive than artificial varieties of low-calorie sweeteners , so providing those packets gratis might be costly. 

"We know people are more passionate than ever about eating well, and we face a big challenge in shifting their perceptions of what we offer."                                                                -KFC U.K. & Ireland Head of Food Innovation Victoria Robertson

A QSR that 'nudges' customers to eat lighter?

Who would have ever thought our world would arrive at a point where businesses that make money by selling food would be pushing their customers to eat less with the not-so-complimentary message, "You might be too chubby"? But that is, indeed, where we are, and because most customers who do have weight problems know it anyway, the approach might work since it still provides plenty of opportunity for a QSR like KFC to cash in. After all, lighter and lower-calorie dishes are usually more expensive to produce and purchase. 

But in this ever-wider world, people are very willing to pay for that, hence KFC U.K. and Ireland's plans to also test "a series of initiatives to make it easier for customers to choose the lighter options." The brand said that it will work with several unnamed "partners to test a program that works to change customer behavior at mealtimes" and point them in the direction of lighter choices.

KFC media information said the brand will accomplish that aforementioned task through trials that raise both customer awareness and understanding of nutritional information. The brand will also test pricing levels and what it said will be "inducements" that push customers toward more healthful choices. 

"We know people are more passionate than ever about eating well, and we face a big challenge in shifting their perceptions of what we offer," KFC U.K. and Ireland Head of Food Innovation Victoria Robertson, said in the information released about the campaign. ...

"That said, we know any new menu and recipe changes will have to be just as tasty as today — our fans absolutely love our Original Recipe chicken. ... We won't be changing the Colonel's secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices. This is about providing choice, and offering delicious, signature KFC taste that just happens to be lighter."  

That reassurance that the original recipe chicken is not going anywhere was surely meant to allay the fears of customers in the U.K. like the many who called police last winter panicked when the chain temporarily ran out of chicken earlier this year due to a supplier snafu. That is most assuredly something for marketers to always remember when announcing massive menu changes, lest the brand be deluged with those still intimately connected to the original menu.

But really the bottom line in all this is that what the world chicken king is trying to do in the U.K. market is promises to be quite a shift, but still, one that is in sync with what all QSRs are finding their customers want today. Given the U.K.'s state-sponsored push to get people to eat lighter and healthier, this may not be the last brand to try this type of menu makeover there.

But you can be sure the entire QSR world will be watching all of it very closely for successes and fails. KFC is well aware that this initiative makes the brand a kind of live, real-time experiment in restaurant makeovers, too. After all, QSRs (a.k.a. fast food) have taken a beating for their history of less-than-healthful, high-calorie offerings over the last several decades, so what KFC is doing in this European market could set a tone for the business going forward. Or as KFC U.K. said so well in its information about the overall British initiative, "Everyone in the food and drink industry — from fast food to traditional restaurants — is being scrutinized for the nutritional content of their meals. As an industry leader and world-famous brand, we know that we bear a responsibility to help move the sector forward."

Photo: iStock

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Chicken, Food & Beverage, Health & Nutrition, International, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Social Responsibility

Companies: Yum! Brands

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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