KFC’s public image is at a crossroads.
Recently, the company launched a major rebranding effort that attempts to harken back to its roots—publicly recommitting to the standards it announced when it opened its doors in 1952. And at last Friday’s annual shareholder meeting in Louisville, the chairman of its parent company (Yum! Brands) officially passed the torch to new leadership.
KFC has a choice. It can use this moment of change in its leadership and brand to truly live up to the new image it’s working to cultivate, and bring in a new generation of savvy customers. Or, it could stop at multi-billion-dollar renovations to all of its U.S. restaurants, and empty nostalgia without the action to back it up. The research I’ve seen shows that millennials care a lot about where their food comes from and they don’t like chicken from farms that rely on routine drugs. KFC can’t fix that problem with new paint, kitchen upgrades, and original recipes.
On May 17th, NRDC launched a campaign urging another kind of change at the company—better antibiotics practices in its supply chain. We’re urging the largest fast food chicken chain in the country to prevent the abuse of these lifesaving drugs in the chicken raised for their restaurants, in order to keep antibiotics working when sick people need them.
A few months ago, as we were preparing to launch our KFC campaign, I was surprised to find out that my husband and I owned several dozen shares of stock in Yum! Brands. This meant that as owner of common stock, I had the opportunity to speak at the annual shareholder meeting last week and press the company on its weak antibiotics policy in person. Last Friday I did just that, and stood up before leaders of KFC and Yum! to ask why the chicken giant has not taken action to eliminate the threat posed by antibiotics misuse to public health, to KFC workers and communities, and to the company’s brand reputation.
Unfortunately, the company’s response was not encouraging. Instead of expressing a commitment to phasing out antibiotics at KFC, Yum Brands! CEO Greg Creed vaguely told me his company is “evaluating” options—leaving out any details or plans for how it is doing so. By contrast, KFC sister company Taco Bell, which is also owned by Yum!, quietly announced in April that it will no longer serve chicken raised with antibiotics important to human medicine by early 2017. But Creed made sure to distance KFC from the progress Taco Bell has made, saying that different brands require different solutions.
Yet, KFC’s competitors—with any number of varying and complex supply chains—are increasingly demonstrating that our ask is achievable. In addition to Taco Bell, McDonalds, Chick-fil-A, Subway, Panera, Chipotle, Papa Johns and others have already moved away from chickens raised on routine antibiotics.
KFC’s new branding effort is anchored on an investment in how their chicken is made—but that should start with how the birds are raised. In the Colonel’s time, chicken farming was smaller scale, not the industrial-size operations that exist today. Chickens we were likely not routinely fed antibiotics—the same drugs we rely on to cure infections in people—to speed up their growth, and stave off disease in crowded, unhealthy living conditions.
KFC’s fast food peers are recognizing that today’s customers see through false advertising, and are increasingly demanding meat raised with better practices.
During my time in Louisville, I saw that firsthand. My waitress at a local Waffle House—who told me she was a huge KFC fan—mentioned seeing the NRDC mobile billboard in a hotel parking lot. When I explained that I was in town to pressure KFC on its antibiotics policy, she was at first confused. But she quickly made the connection between our campaign and her personal experience as a mom of kids with frequent ear infections who rely on antibiotics for treatment. On my way to the airport, I chatted with my taxi driver Joseph about what brought me to town. He also appreciated our aim to get KFC to take a strong stance on antibiotics use in their chicken supply chain. Joseph mentioned that Chick-fil-A is his true favorite, yet assumed it was no different than KFC. But he was relieved and impressed when I explained that Chick-fil-A is actually an industry leader on antibiotics, having committed to changing their suppliers’ practices back in 2014.
The real Colonel Sanders died of pneumonia—an illness that often requires antibiotics for treatment. By improving the way its chickens are raised, a new and improved KFC can help preserve the drugs needed to treat the disease that killed its founder. How’s that for getting back to your roots?
But as long as KFC delays action, the company will continue to fall behind. And no amount of rebranding can change that.