Last month, KFC US launched the 'Double Down', a food offering, which if you haven't had the pleasure of seeing/trying yet, involves a sandwich with chicken breasts replacing the buns. Since the sandwich has gone largely unchanged since before the 4th Earl of Sandwich coined the term, the use of meat as bread managed to drum up quite a large amount of interest for the fast food chain.
Company messaging stressed its filling qualities as a meal and as a culinary experience, though coverage of it in the press was more varied. The visual spectacle of the product led to an expected outrage from those within the health community (despite its nutritional content being less damaging than many other products currently offered within the sector), but it also served to generate a large amount of buzz and user generated content. Videos of people eating the Double Down (and their reactions) began uploading to Youtube and Twitter drove KFC to trending topic status around the time of launch. By marketing the product as an extreme experience, KFC managed to make consumers project expectations on a rather routinized (if slightly grotesque) food stuff. Before, one might experience an array of feelings at purchasing, consuming and then rationalizing a KFC meal bucket, now they feel as if they've conquered something, even if the act takes them one step closer to a competitive eating event.
Of course, KFC's leveraged buzz and engagement comes at a possible cost, as with any extreme product entry, to the brand image. While fast food may always have to deal with charges about its health content, creating a deep fried zeitgeist and taking it as your own moves you to the front of the industry firing line for as long as your "buzz" lasts. For the Double Down to be a success, even during its limited run (till May 23rd), people have to respect its notoriety and infamy. Once the stunt is over though, how much of that infamy hangs onto the brand?
Stunt product makers lacking brand equity or an established market position have the luxury of going all out without any real risk. KFC's healthier options introduced in previous years, and its association with the Pink Bucket Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, don't allow the margin for infamy that other firms may have. Blair Sauce's "Ultra Death Sauce" & Brewdog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin (a 32% Beer) have only the stunt/experience value of their product to bank on, therefore infamy comes as an added bonus. If "Ultra Death Sauce" becomes equivalent to Tabasco in the consumer's mind or Tactical Nuclear Penguin is seen as boring, then the luster of the experience goes incredibly quickly. Therefore, while stunt firms can go for broke, buying into 'any publicity is good publicity' (barring the class action kind), established brands must walk a finer line. When image is at stake, the question doesn't become "how extreme can you go?", but "how extreme will the consumer let me be without thinking I can't be trusted?"
Trust that a firm will deliver a value is at the core of all marketing. Delivering this expected value entails finding a balance between costs, benefits, image and messaging. Delivering the world's fastest car that can be safely driven daily and costs under £25,000 is virtually impossible. Car-makers offer mild stunt claims such as being 'best in class at comfort" or 'fastest 0-60' for its price range, creating a subset of extreme superlatives through messaging without actually attempting to build a cheaply made death trap attached to a jet engine. The Double Down utilizes the same technique through product design and messaging. The sight of the product, coupled with the press outrage and social media buzz means that a pretty unhealthy meal becomes the equivalent of a heart attack on a plate.
Unlike a car manufacturer dealing with 'speed', KFC exists in an industry where positive superlatives aren't normally achievable. The 'healthiest' meal at Burger King isn't applauded but analyzed wearily by consumers for being the equivalent of taking a punch to the shoulder instead of the gut. Therefore aiming to achieve negative superlative glory within fast food can pose a much greater and lasting risk than other industries. Within this context, KFC's limited time stunt seems poised to do some lasting damage to its brand image. Though it can strongly be argued that KFC is already seen as unhealthy, lasting perceptions from the Double Down can make the brand seem to revel/wallow in cholesterol soaked glory, haloing over to their entire offering.
With this in mind, how can KFC, its competitors and other risky sectors utilize stunt products effectively? One answer, I believe, seems to lie in comments about the Double Down itself. In multiple videos and tweets, consumers point out that you could easily make the Double Down yourself, without it being on the menu. If KFC had promoted consumers making the Double Down, through the dissemination of user generated content, they still receive most of the possible notoriety for the product development, without much of the blame for creating it. Consumers making extra large product servings, like this Giant Kit-Kat, promote the brand without drawing any of the fire that an obvious promotion would.
Secondly, KFC could have placed the item on a secret or non-advertised menu. Most chains offer items that aren't on the menu, creating a feeling of being in the know as the information is passed between consumers. Coupling the ease of which the Double Down could be created from other items with the urban legend appeal it could have held would have generated a lasting 'cool' notoriety for a time to come, without much of the current backlash. In-n-Out's 100x100 burger is a great example of a chain offering something that borders on freakishly unfeasible and hugely stuntish, but without much infamy. In both of these possible approaches, KFC could have minimized risk to its brand image and appeal, while fostering a growing notoriety and stunt factor.
"Well, I did skip breakfast..."
We won't know if KFC's choice of promotion for the Double Down was wise until it releases sales figures for the relevant quarter, but the buzz around the product seems to indicate that this isn't the last we've heard of stunt product development in fast food or other sectors.
What do you think? Leave a comment about your thoughts on the Double Down or other stunt products you might have tried.