Have you ever noticed that Colonel Sanders, the white-haired founder and mascot of American fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), bears a vague resemblance to Santa Claus? Probably not, and in fact you might never draw the connection without visiting Japan.
Around this time of year, KFC outlets across the country dress their ubiquitous store-front Colonel Sanders statues in red and white Santa costumes in preparation for the restaurant’s busiest time of year. In the Land of the Rising Sun, where a mere one percent of the population practices Christianity, Christmas equals Kentucky.
KFC, referred to as simply “Kentucky” in Japan, entered the Japanese market in 1970 as a joint venture between the American parent company and Mitsubishi Corporation (MC). After a successful test run at the Osaka World Expo, the first Japanese KFC was built in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Nagoya. A year later, the fried chicken chain was 100 million yen ($972,500) in debt.
MC considered cutting its losses and ending the partnership, but instead decided to readjust its strategy. While the parent company had insisted on suburban locations, MC insisted that opening smaller restaurants in urban areas could turn the venture into a money maker. The plan worked – KFC Japan opened its 100th outlet in 1973, with each posting average sales of 3 million yen ($29,000) per month.
The company hit another milestone in 1974, the first year that KFC began aggressively marketing fried chicken as a Christmas meal.
“The tradition of eating KFC at Christmas [began] when an expat customer at the chain’s Aoyama store observed that, in a land bereft of Yuletide turkey, fried chicken was the next best thing,” wrote Japan Today. “The store’s canny manager was paying attention and passed word on to the higher-ups, leading the company to launch its ludicrously successful ‘Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’ (Kentucky for Christmas!) campaign in 1974.”
Regardless of what sparked the fried chicken for Christmas craze, KFC Japan has capitalized on it. The odd tradition has led to such high demand for the Colonel’s fare that pre-orders for Christmas begin in early December. One outlet in Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district expected to fry 7,000 pieces of chicken on December 24, with patrons being forced to wait for up to two hours to pick up an order.
Not only is KFC a popular holiday treat – it’s a relatively expensive one, as well. An eight piece Christmas-themed “Party Barrel” (Japan’s answer to the “Bucket”) with a salad, a small chocolate cake and a commemorative Christmas plate costs a whopping 3,980 yen ($39). In the U.S., KFC’s “Festive Feast” offers eight pieces of chicken, two large side dishes, four biscuits, and a dozen cookies for just $19.99.
“[KFC Japan’s] sales soar in December, making twice as much profit than in other months,” reported CNN.
Currently, KFC Japan operates more than 1,200 outlets nationwide. Yearly revenues, as of March 31 2013, are over 78 billion yen ($760 million).
KFC Japan relies heavily on advertising that paints a bucket of fried chicken on the Christmas table to be as normal as turkey or apple pie is in the West. The fast food chain hires only top Japanese talent to appear in their television ads – popular model, actress and singer Haruka Ayase has been at the helm since 2011.
“One of the reasons the campaign lasted so long is that the message is always the same: at Christmas you eat chicken,” Yasuyuki Katagi, executive director at ad agency Ogilvy and Mather Japan, told The Financial Times.
The strategy has been surprisingly effective with young Japanese.
“I watch the commercials for KFC and that makes me want to eat chicken,” said Satsuki Sakamoto, a 22 year old college student in Tokyo. “I have this image that Americans eat chicken for Christmas.”
She added, “I don’t know the difference between turkey and chicken.”
That kind of cultural naiveté, blended with savvy marketing and a sprinkling of star-studded TV commercials, has proved to be a winning recipe for KFC Japan.
Angela Erika Kubo contributed to this report.