For someone charged with marketing one of the world’s biggest fast-food chains, Vipul Chawla seems remarkably at ease. “This is a journey,” he says philosophically, explaining that he simply tries to have fun doing what he does.
Having started his career at Unilever India as a management trainee after obtaining his MBA, Chawla spent 19 years climbing the corporate ladder at the FMCG giant, eventually being responsible for hair care business worth close to US$2 billion. His current chapter began last April.
“Although both companies are customer-focused, I was [attracted] by the huge learning opportunity,” he says. “KFC’s development in emerging markets is still on the ground floor.”
Regardless of the maturity of a market, Chawla has a well-developed view of what is important. He believes a good marketer must be intensely curious about trends, society and customers’ interests. Also, they should keep things simple and have ability and confidence to try new things. “Successful strategy should be easily accepted by the majority,” he says. “Marketing is a risky business, but you need to keep your chin up when you stumble.”
He is also a big advocate of good story telling. “The best stories should have ‘BITE’ — built-in talkability and engagement.” Following the company’s famous recognition culture, Chawla has set up a ‘BITE’ award for the best idea of the month. “This is a people-based business. People give the best when they feel good about themselves.”
Strongly inspired by the thinking of Steve Jobs, Chawla also sees himself as passionate and intuitive. “I think marketers have sometimes delegated the brand and product thinking to the tyranny of testing,” he says. “While I believe in the benefits of testing, I think it should not substitute intuition.”
Chawla encourages his team to trust their own judgement on product design and development. He also spends a lot of time in the stores, talking to local crew members. “The best marketing ideas come from outside my department,” he says. “The benefit of this organisation is that the staff is keen in terms of approach, which sometimes inspires the most innovative ideas.”
Chawla says the real challenge is to provide a consistently high quality in-store experience. “The moment of truth is in the store. Everything else we do is just to drive the traffic to the restaurants,” he says.
Chawla uses enforcement strategies to keep KFC’s service level high, such as offering ‘60-second lunch treats’ in Malaysia and ‘Served with smiles’ in Indonesia, where customers receive something for free if the order isn’t served in time or with a smile.
While the brand is relatively strong in Southeast Asia, China is the famous success story. The market is Yum’s largest outside the US, accounting for more than 40 per cent of global revenue. Chawla acknowledges three principles from KFC’s business in China that can be applied to the other markets.
“We have adapted our menu to suit local tastes, offering items such as rice, porridge and breakfast,” he says. KFC is the obvious example of how to adapt to the needs of the local consumers without losing the advantages of foreignness. “In any regional role like mine, one needs to strike the right balance between serve and protect. We serve the local needs of the markets, and protect the global brand framework. We have learnt so much from our colleagues at Yum China. We call it standing on the shoulder of giants, when we learn and apply the best practices from a colleague. Another thing is we have a high-quality local management team. The China leadership hasn’t been changed for 15 years, which is remarkable,” he says.
On the other hand, Chawla acknowledges that the demands of marketing have changed significantly in recent years, even if basic principles can still be applied. Engagement with customers on social platforms is something he has worked hard to develop.
“We use Facebook to connect with our customers, by listening to them, analysing the daily comments and feedback and working on our strategies. Facebook helps us get a sense of what customers say about our brands,” Chawla says.
In South Korea, KFC also uses Kakao Talk, the popular smartphone platform, to connect consumers by sending out the offers and promotions. “One of the opportunities we see in digital is that penetration of smartphone is still relatively low in Asia, and it has great potential to grow,” he adds.
Internet platforms enable brands to engage with customers in a more effective way and integrate community management into consumers’ digital activities. “Effective community management is fundamentally about finding the most engaging manner in which to have a conversation with consumers. It’s a lot like having a conversation with a friend,” Chawla says.
He cites two examples of community management at KFC. In order to build its ‘So good’ position in Singapore, the brand posted the clips of its Facebook fan party at a store as mainstream advertising on TV, to showcase authentic in-store experience and customers’ feedback on why KFC is ‘So good’ in their lives. The campaign drove KFC to become the top five most engaged Facebook pages in Singapore.
The other example is when KFC launched its famous ‘Double Down’ sandwich in Japan, it invited a celebrity to tweet about the product, and converted one store into a Double Down Store. The entire campaign generated significant interest on Twitter without using any traditional media to create an official launch.
Apart from social media, online ordering is the second largest digital platform KFC uses, Chawla says. “We are seeing increasing development of things like home delivery through a digital platform in Asia. Although it’s still at an early stage, it’s a big opportunity for us.”
While Chawla has been keen on generating innovation and raising marketing capability in his team, such as ‘BITE’, personal recognition and training in digital, social media, skill level and advertising, outside of the company, he has a close and collaborative relationship with the agencies, including Ogilvy, Grey, BBDO and Hakuhodo. Subbaraju Alluri, CEO of Grey Group Singapore, describes Chawla as a “team player” who is “clued in on trends” and “leads by example”.
Through Chawla’s work with his team and agencies, KFC has built a strong standing in much of the region. Apart from the brand’s achievement in China and Southeast Asia, Chawla is also proud to see that KFC in Japan is a brand equal to Christmas, when customers will place their KFC orders weeks in advance for the holiday. In South Korea, the restaurant has been winning the top award as the number one brand for the past three years from the Korean Service Quality Index.
However, with all the praise, Chawla has his eye on bigger success in the next few years: “To build KFC into the most loved restaurant in Asia.”
The article first appeared on Campaign Asia