The suits at KFC — the restaurant chain that used to be called, proudly, Kentucky Fried Chicken — have claimed that their 2009 decision to emphasize grilled chicken and sandwiches was based on “extensive consumer research.” I don’t find their assertion credible. I think they were trying to adjust the company’s direction and marketing strategy to their perception of the prevailing political and social attitudes about obesity. I don’t think the execs carefully considered how their consumers would react, particularly to ad campaigns that explicitly repudiated the fried-chicken brand of KFC.
I’m not alone in drawing these conclusions. KFC franchisees are livid about the resulting loss of business. They have sued the parent company to wrest control of KFC marketing from execs who fail to understand that, in the words of one franchisee, “by and large the general public doesn’t give a damn how many calories are in it.” After all, dieters and health-nazis are unlikely to make up a significant share of the KFC customer base in any event.
What’s the larger significance of KFC’s internal battles? In both the public and private sectors, far too many decisions are made on the basis of silly fads, partial glimpses of nebulous trends, a temptation to placate powerful interest groups, or a pathetic desire to be seen as enlightened. In the private sector, companies sometimes waste time and money on pointless public-relations exercises, senseless recycling programs, and the like. But subjected to the rigors of competition, these firms tend to pay the price over time and adjust their behavior accordingly. In the public sector, however, politicians don’t have to worry as much about losing ground to competitors. Their absurdities persist. Their pretensions multiply.
Leaders who make hard-headed decisions on the basis of valid empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and sound priorities tend to do well. Leaders who chicken out and pander tend to fail in the long run — except in safe political districts, where they can afford to screw up, hang around, and accumulate rent-controlled apartments.