KFC doubles down on a customer favourite

When it comes to the fast-food industry, nothing carries the potential for either triumph or disaster quite like menu innovation. It has brought us monstrosities like pizza with a hot dog crust, deep-fried cereal and a dubious early stab at a vegetarian product with the Hula Burger, but also beloved menu items like the Egg McMuffin and, for better or worse, the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

One innovation that has amassed both supporters and detractors is KFC’s Double Down sandwich, which has become one of the most talked-about items in the Colonel’s canon ever since it first arrived in 2010. The chain recently brought it back to Canada as a limited menu item through Nov. 7.

Critics hate the Double Down, of course. The New York Times‘ Sam Sifton once described it as “must-to-avoid,” while the Onion’s Nathan Rabin labelled it a “gastronomic grease-orgy to end all gastronomic grease-orgies.”

But KFC Canada marketing director Ira Dubinsky has heard all of the criticism and says the sandwich’s taste and “no buns allowed” concept have endeared it to customers. “It’s a bold, bun-less concept,” he said. The Double Down has also become the company’s most-demanded product “by some margin,” he said, with people regularly asking the chicken chain to bring it back, both in its stores and on social media.

“We’re always looking for ways to keep customers interested and excited by what we’re doing, and give people a reason to come back,” said Dubinsky of the decision to bring back the Double Down until Nov. 7. “In our industry, you have to be constantly innovating and being creative, but you also have to give your customers what they want and listen to them and try to meet them, if not halfway, all the way.”

The fast-food chains are well aware of consumer demand for bygone menu items, with some using that enthusiasm to create hype. McDonald’s customers have been imploring the Golden Arches to bring back the McPizza for years now, for example, and in late August, it tweeted an all-caps message that read “THE THING U HAVE BEEN ASKING FOR ARRIVES 08.31.2021.”

That naturally led to excited speculation that the McPizza was finally returning, even though the reasons for the product’s eventual failure have been well documented—from being wildly off-brand, to not cooking fast enough to keep up with the rest of the menu, to the large version being too big to fit through the drive-through window.

In short, the imminent return of the McPizza seems improbable. Yet McDonald’s initially stoked the fire (and consumers’ eventual ire) by doing nothing to disabuse people of the notion it was returning until a day later. And when the new menu item was revealed to be Spicy McNuggets, the consumer reaction was perhaps not as enthusiastic as McDonald’s had hoped.

Meanwhile, this is the first time in 10 years that the Double Down is returning in what Dubinsky calls its “purest form”—bacon, Monterey Jack cheese and sauce, sandwiched between chicken fillets—although KFC has experimented with variations over the years.

KFC first teased the Double Down’s return with a cryptic Sept. 29 tweet featuring a blurred photo of the sandwich accompanied by the phrase “If you know you know” and the hashtag #IYKYK. It was messaging aimed at the sandwich’s “true fans,” said Dubinsky.

Subsequent TV/video and large format out-of-home by John St. has eschewed any type of creative “concept” to promote the Double Down’s return, instead showing a close-up of the bun-less sandwich.

“We really wanted the sandwich to be the star, and because there is so much anticipation and excitement for its return, we felt we didn’t need to overcomplicate things,” said Dubinsky. “We’ve put it up on a pedestal, so to speak, with the intention of making it look as engaging and appetizing as possible.”

KFC will run three or four LTOs this year, said Dubinsky. “We’re always looking for innovative creations to bring to customers and put on our menu,” he said. “It’s about getting them right, not necessarily about how many. We want them to have exceptional quality, taste amazing, and be executed consistently across all our restaurants.”

But with the Double Down, has KFC finally reached the outer edges of product innovation? What more can be left? “There’s always room for innovation. There are always trends, new tastes and flavours that people are experimenting with. The world is our oyster,” said Dubinsky.

Let us be the first to express our fervent hope that the oyster doesn’t become part of KFC’s world.

Chris Powell