Sunday, October 16, 2011

KFC and Taco Bell: Double Down Falls Short

The last time I checked in with KFC and Taco Bell, they were in the middle of marketing strategies based on the idea of celebrating junk food. At KFC, a second attempt at introducing the Double Down, a greasy slab of a meal that was as indefensible on culinary grounds as it was on nutritional grounds. At Taco Bell, publicity-stunt litigation that revealed that Taco Bell’s “beef” was only partly beef and also included sand and other undisclosed ingredients. Taco Bell’s belligerent full-page newspaper advertisements, like KFC’s “extreme” television commercials, tried to glorify the general junkiness of fast food. The message was, you know it’s bad, and you know you like it.

As one nutritionist put it, when people really want good food, they don’t go to Taco Bell. Both parts of that comment turned out to be more true now than they were then. People do want good food. And, they don’t go to Taco Bell. And when people hear that fast food is good to eat because it’s bad for you, they aren’t buying it.

U.S. same-store sales at Taco Bell and KFC were down 3 percent from the year before when the parent company reported results a week ago. The actual results were worse than that, because they exclude the many underperforming stores that were closed during the year.

One of those stores was a combined KFC and Taco Bell in my local area. It closed while the McDonald’s across the street remains open. That contrast alone is a sign of the failure of the “double down” strategy of proudly touting dangerous junk food. McDonald’s, in recent years, has taken the opposite marketing tack, trying to persuade its customers that it is improving the food quality of its food. It is debatable whether McDonald’s upgraded food is actually any healthier than the tacos at Taco Bell, and McDonald’s results too have been uneven in recent years, but at least its store is still open.

U.S. consumers really are looking for better food. It can be confusing trying to figure out what food is really best, and habits can take time to change, but when restaurant brands make a point of telling you how bad their food is, that takes some of the confusion away and can actually lead people to change their eating habits.