While KFC is still trying to clean the egg off its face from its failed Oprah-boosted coupon giveaway, El Pollo Loco is seizing every marketing opportunity to play up its own brand.
"They've been extremely opportunistic," said Patrick Byers, CEO of Bellevue, Wash.-based Outsource Marketing and author of "The Responsible Marketing Blog." "They've gone directly for the jugular, and I'm impressed."
First, the 418-unit El Pollo Loco challenged KFC to a taste test instead of simply conducting one of its own and sharing the results. Its Taste the Fire campaign features CEO Steve Carley challenging KFC to a taste test to prove that chicken cooked over an open flame is the only way to enjoy grilled chicken. Carley also created a designated toll-free hotline for the competitor to call to set up the showdown at 1-877-EPL-STEVE.
The Costa Mesa, Calif.-based chain was founded on its citrus-marinated flame-grilled chicken platform. Mark Hardison, vice president of marketing for El Pollo Loco, said the chain is the market leader in the grilled chicken segment in the Los Angeles area and wanted to maintain that designation.
"We wanted to make sure we protect our turf," Hardison said.
El Pollo Loco has carefully followed KFC's progress with its grilled chicken line and had its heavy handed Taste the Fire marketing campaign ready to go when its competitor launched its UNThink KFC branding message. When KFC announced its UNFry Day one-piece grilled chicken giveaway on April 27, El Pollo Loco put out its own offer.
The brand upped the ante by giving away two pieces of grilled chicken plus two tortillas and fresh salsa the day following KFC's UNFry Day.
"We strategically decided to (offer an extra incentive) after the competitor's giveaway in a way that would make sure that we reminded folks if they thought that the competitor's product was OK, that they have a better option of the best tasting grilled chicken in the marketplace," Hardison said.
El Pollo Loco stores gave away 1.1 million pieces of chicken systemwide, surpassing its goal of serving a quarter-million customers two free pieces of chicken, he said.
KFC spokesman Rick Maynard said the chain gave away more than 4 million pieces of chicken during its one-day giveaway promotion.
Eye on the ball
El Pollo Loco kept tabs on KFC's marketing and continued to take jabs at its competitor. One ad even portrayed KFC executives making calls under fake names to the El Pollo Loco Taste the Fire hot line.
KFC's next tactic was an Oprah Winfrey-promoted giveaway deal, a downloadable coupon for a free 2-piece grilled chicken meal. KFC posted tweets on its Twitter site about the brand being in the Top 10 trending topics on Twitter.
El Pollo Loco responded quickly again after realizing that KFC was excluding Mother's Day from the coupon's two-week redemption window. El Pollo Loco offered to accept the KFC coupon at its stores that day. With KFC getting so much play on Twitter, El Pollo Loco's tweet about its offer was forwarded or 'return tweeted' over and over again.
Byers said El Pollo Loco did a good job of having fun with its Mother's Day offer by asking what KFC had against mothers. KFC could have done a better job avoiding the holiday altogether by ending the promotion before its busiest day of the year.
"One of the things I give them (El Pollo Loco) kudos for is their responsiveness to the marketplace," Byers said. "They are using social media, and they are listening."
Hardison said the decision to honor the competitor's coupon on that day was in part to market the brand's key target demographic — moms.
"The dinner decision is typically made by Mom," Hardison said. "Naturally, when we discovered that the competitive coupon was not valid on Mothers Day, we moved to correct things for moms everywhere."
Word of mouth is key
As KFC is still tweeting apology replies on its Twitter site, El Pollo Loco is return-tweeting thank yous from customers after free meals on Mother's Day. Still, Byers said he won't go as far as to say KFC's coupon giveaway was a disaster.
Yet, the Internet is full of complaints and rants against the brand after it rescinded the coupon offer once consumers swamped stores nationwide in its first two days. But it's still free publicity.
"I think it's the kind of publicity a lot of people like getting," Byers said. "'Our product is so interesting and it's such a great promotion. Everyone's so excited to get it that they're lining up outside the doors.' That's not all bad for KFC."
Byers also said he is still considering whether it would be smart for KFC to respond to El Pollo Loco's challenge. If KFC does, the approach may make all the difference.
"The question is, 'Should the response be creative, using the same media and medium that their competitor has,'" he said.
El Pollo Loco is pleased with the attention its brand has gotten from the Taste the Fire campaign, starting with its first systemwide giveaway. The brand made sure all stores were prepared for the day, from extra staffing and plenty of product to brand ambassadors interacting with guests waiting in line.
Those brand ambassadors noticed guests calling and send text messages to friends. And later in the day, more consumers were sharing that they'd heard about the promotion from a friend than from advertising, Hardison said.
Hardison said the long-term return on investment is that word of mouth.
"Word of mouth is one of the most important components of a giveaway like this. It both helps the success of the day, and it builds equity in our brand," he said. "The quality of word-of-mouth recommendation is much higher than what we would get out of any paid advertising."
Not all perfect
Although Byers applauds El Pollo Loco for its irreverent and interesting approach, he does think the brand could have chosen a different spokesperson than Carley. Interviewing consumers on the street would have been more authentic, he said. And some consumers may be put off by a Caucasian spokesman for a restaurant with a Spanish name.
Some consumers also are turned off by such in-your-face messaging as El Pollo Loco has used in this campaign. But from a marketing standpoint, the campaign is mostly genius, he said.
"I don't think they've gone too far," Byers said. "I don't believe they've been irresponsble. I do believe they're pushing kind of the outer edges, and I do think they've missed a few opportunities. But, boy, the ones they have seized, they've done a nice job on."
Christa is editor of QSRweb.com and contributes to FastCasual.com and PizzaMarketplace.com. She has experience in the restaurant industry as well as 15 years as a journalist.