Profile: Jennelle Tilling, vice-president of marketing, UK and Ireland at KFC

Jennelle Tilling, vice-president of marketing, UK and Ireland at KFC
Jennelle Tilling, vice-president of marketing, UK and Ireland at KFC

Jennelle Tilling, vice-president of marketing, UK and Ireland at KFC, believes the brand has a place at the table. Interview by John Reynolds.

In the, perhaps, idealised view of Jennelle Tilling, KFC's top UK marketer, by 2015 the takeaway restaurant chain will be something of a fast-food nirvana. Young, smiley-faced children will be playing educational computer games, while mums will be grazing on grilled chicken, corn and salads.

Those at KFC like to think it is undergoing a quiet fast-food revolution. Its architect is the lissom, Melbourne-born Tilling, vice-president of marketing, who is, by turns, both pragmatist and idealist.

Central to the change has been the axing of KFC's 50-year-old slogan, 'Finger lickin' good', in favour of the somewhat less mouthwatering 'So good' in February.

'Look, we are in an awesome position right now,' retorts Tilling. "Finger lickin'" talked about the food well. But 'So good' talks about the brand in a more holistic way. It applies to members of staff and the service we offer in a way that the old strapline couldn't.'

The future vision for KFC includes healthier menu offerings and trials of concept restaurants, which are testing self-service drinks and a 'wall' where customers have their photo taken so it appears on digital screens while they eat.

All this modernisation begs the question, is the sacrosanct Colonel Sanders heading for the fast-food rubbish receptacle? 'Noooo,' shrieks Tilling, aghast at such a suggestion. 'The Colonel is an icon. If you can put a recognisable face to a brand without any words, as we can, then he is an icon.'

Ever since US documentary-maker Morgan Spurlock sliced the fast-food industry open, labelling it as nothing more than a fatty-foods pedlar, fast-food brands have been falling over themselves to win healthy headlines.

KFC, which has 800 UK outlets compared with McDonald's 1200, perhaps has more to shout about than its rivals. Unlike McDonald's, for instance, it believes it took the moral high ground when it stopped giving away toys six years ago. It also steers clear of movie-sponsorship deals.

Last month, it was tub-thumping over its decision to disclose calorie information on its menus - a stance also taken by McDonald's, but not Burger King or Subway.

'What we do is right for us and we are confident in what we are doing,' says Tilling. 'By showing the calories, it is easy for consumers to make their own decision.'

It is also easy to assume that such worthy decisions will not contribute to the bottom line - at face value, you might presume people will be put off their KFC bucket. However, the Yum!-owned brand claims that its actions add up financially. Yum! doesn't release UK-specific figures, but Tilling claims the chain has reported 20 consecutive quarters of profit growth, impressive at a time when every retailer and food outlet is trying to lure in cash-strapped Brits.

This year, KFC is on target to open 38 branches, creating 1700 jobs. It hopes the expansion will be justified as it counts on its John Lewis-inspired, 'multi-generational, multi-racial' TV ad, created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, being a hit with consumers.

It could be argued, though, that some of the changes outlined by Tilling are mere wheezes. KFC's 'Lighten up' idea, for example, attempts to combine a healthy-eating message with customer and staff inter-action. So, if customers decided the calorie count of their chicken burger, fries and fizzy drink was too high, they could holler 'lighten up' to the server and swap their fizzy drink and fries for water and corn.

In an ideal world, maybe, but it's easier to imagine a white-van man stopping off at KFC to shout 'fatten up', not 'lighten up'. Tilling is not buying the stereotype. She claims that KFC's core audience is mothers, hence the reason for aiming its ads directly at families.

Having spent 11 years at Yum!, globetrotting for KFC, as well as roles at Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, Tilling says she 'still loves it'. 'My days are always varied. I visit different stores, spend time with management teams, meet up with our creative agency, and I mentor,' she adds.

The latter is a part of the job that is clearly close to Tilling's heart. 'I love coaching other marketers and I mentor six people across the world. I want my legacy to be that we had the best marketers.'

This approach goes beyond KFC's walls, with Tilling being an active member of The Marketing Society and ISBA, as well as a long-standing cheerleader of WACL.

Tilling was drafted in to KFC in 2006 as something of a firefighter, charged with tackling the issues raised by industry denouncers out to vilify all aspects of the fast-food business. It has been a standout role in her career. Other major achievements include the global launch of the Quad four-pizzas-in-one product, now a major line for Pizza Hut.

However, as for any marketer climbing the corporate ladder, there have been failures, including the Sparkler soft drink and, more notably, KFC's inability to find a toe-hold in the breakfast market.

Critics, and cynics, might argue that KFC will always be synonymous with fried chicken, so customers are not likely to pop in for coffee and fresh pastries.

'The thing I have learned is that when you get too far away from your DNA, that is when you're really tested,' says Tilling. She is not giving up on breakfasts, though, and claims that KFC 'will get it right'.

Regardless of this challenge, 2011 will be a big year for Tilling. Success could well take her career up a notch. On top of relaunching the brand positioning, KFC is also rolling out its healthier, non-fried griddled chicken, branded Brazer, in addition to cutting saturated fat by up to 25%, thanks to a change cooking oil.

Two concept-restaurant pilots in Cannock and Nuneaton are also far from minor dabbling. Should the formats prove successful, they will be rolled out nationwide. This, hopes KFC, will up the ante against it rivals, leaving it better-equipped to take on more-upmarket restaurants such as Pizza Express.

After the interview, a walk around the KFC closest to Marketing's Hammersmith offices highlights a cross-section of society picking up lunch. No doubt this would delight Tilling, who believes the brand has a part to play in family meals and balanced diets. 'I eat KFC every two weeks,' she says. 'At lunchtime we have office workers, people like me, coming in. Then you will see lots of mums, our biggest customers, coming in at 6pm to pick up a bucket.'

Dining from a bucket may not sound glamorous, but snaps of A-list celebrities tucking in are never bad for the brand image. Tilling's mission is to ensure KFC remains in the spotlight for all the right reasons.

INSIDE WORK

Pre-1999: Senior marketing roles at McVitie's in the UK and Nestle Dairy in Australia

1999-2006: Various roles at Yum!, including director of marketing strategy for Pizza Hut UK; director of product for marketing for Pizza Hut US; chief marketing officer for Yum! Canada

2006-present: Vice-president of marketing UK & Ireland, KFC

OUTSIDE WORK

Favourite music: Anything by Kylie

Favourite holiday destination: Chamonix

Drives: BMW 300 convertible

Favourite food: Fillet steak with shoestring fries and lots of ketchup.

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