KFC announced today that chief marketing officer Barry Westrum is done pimping the world’s largest chicken chain after just 10 months in the coop.
According to the company, Westrum left “to pursue broader innovation opportunities,” which is the most convoluted phrase I’ve ever heard to describe someone getting his walking papers. I guess the innovative part will come in Westrum fashioning a résumé that doesn’t quite say, “I got fired from my last job.”
So in comes his replacement, Jason Marker, who served as vice president of global branding for KFC for the past 18 months, and before that, toiled several years as chief marketing officer for KFC and Pizza Hut in New Zealand and Australia.
That combined market that is one of the chain’s worst.
I used to cover it peripherally when doing some international coverage on Pizza Hut while at PizzaMarketplace.com many years ago. And in studying Pizza Hut’s woes there, I picked up on KFC’s, which were less woeful, but nothing at all to cock-a-doodle-do about.
Though Restaurant Brands NZ has struggled for years, we can’t blame Marker for its recent shortcomings — especially in light of store closures caused by the February earthquake in Christchurch, N.Z.
In its most recent quarter, which ended in October, same-store sales were flatter than a cock’s comb and nearly as ugly: down 1.9 percent, with revenue rising a meager 0.7 percent.
But a backward look into years prior shows nothing he or anyone else did that impressed customers: flat sales, store closures, declining sales.
So why bring in Marker? What has he done for KFC that we don’t know about?
If, in his global role with the brand, he’s responsible at all for the KFC craze in China — the only market KFC is truly killing it — then he may have something to add.
But even the simplest appraisal of that action makes clear that China’s KFC infatuation is much more complex than just being “on message” with its advertising. Even former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown, Jr., one of two men who bought KFC from the Colonel and turned it into a powerhouse in the 1960s, visited the China market last year and told me KFC’s stores were run to the quality standards they were here in the old days.
That’s operations, not marketing. Marketing merely piggybacks good operations.
But let’s get back to the U.S. where Yum! Brands is spending heavily peddling its old bird. According to a story on Advertising Age’s website, in the first half of 2011, Yum spent $114.1 million on U.S. measured media for KFC — which ain’t chicken feed. In all of 2010 it spent $205.6 million and $234.3 million in 2009, yet the sales needle didn’t move much in any of those periods.
So it appears either the messages are wrong — and likely why Westrum’s career there went south — or the product’s wrong or service is wrong or all three are wrong.
Which makes me wonder: Why pick another company man rather than someone from the outside for this post? If marketing is so important, what’s the likelihood a guy who’s steeped in KFC-think of the past will do something to interrupt this endless string of sales disappointments, something to make consumers think differently enough about KFC to visit it again or anew?
I even wonder why he took the job; heaven knows internal promotions are proving risky this year at Yum. Westrum’s run lasted eons longer than did David Ovens’s, who was sacked after just two months as chief marketing and innovation officer at Taco Bell.
Talk about hell to the chiefs!
KFC should be doing better for the simple fact that it still has the upper hand in the U.S. fast-food chicken market. According to the AdAge story, KFC maintains a 29 percent share compared to Chick-fil-A’s 22 percent and Popeye’s 10.1 percent. But watch that next year as you can bet Chick-fil-A, a bantam rooster by comparison, will grab some KFC share just as it has in the past two years. (Click here to read why I’m sure this will happen.)
And I can’t let this one go: Given all the problems in marketing, isn’t it ironic that KFC trotted out that silly story about the discovery of the Colonel’s cache of cooking secrets in hopes of frying up some fabricated good news?
I’m no genius, but I’ve been around this game long enough to recognize a red herring when I see one, and that decoy story looked a lot like a chicken.