Why KFC is Bringing Back the Double Down

The chicken chain is taking a page from the McDonald's playbook and bringing back one of its most hyped sandwiches back for a limited time.

Apr 17, 2014 at 11:00AM

Yum Brands (NYSE:YUM) KFC has decided to bring back one of the most ridiculous (and delicious) sandwiches in company history when it returns the Double Down to stores in the United States for a limited run from April 21 to May 25.

The product received a ton of media attention when it was originally offered in 2010 (including a chapter in my book Worst Ideas Ever) because it used two fried chicken fillets as the outside of the sandwich instead of bread. Served in a cardboard sleeve, the Double Down has bacon, Monterey Jack cheese, and something called Colonel's sauce (a doctored thousand island dressing variant like McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) special sauce).   

"KFC sold more than 10 million in the first month when Double Down launched in 2010," KFC spokesman Rick Maynard told CNNMoney." As a result of that popularity, the product remained on the menu past the end of the original promotional period."

Sometimes it take ridiculous to get attention in the fast food world (remember the McDLT?) and Double Down certainly delivered ridiculous.

Stunt sandwiches have a good history
McDonald's has long used the idea of rotating popular menu items in and out of circulation, most famously with the McRib. The popular sandwich made of hard-to-distinguish meat (it's pork of some sort) pops up on menus for a few weeks most years, but not always. Sometimes it makes surprise appearances on a regional basis and other years it's not brought back at all. This has given the McRib a cult-like following that tracks its availability around the country. The mystery leads to a buildup of demand, garners enormous amounts of publicity, and even led to a parody episode on The Simpsons

There's even a website -- McRiblocator.com -- that tracks the sandwich almost as it if were Bigfoot. McDonald's seems acutely aware of the hype and mystery surrounding its creation and keeps fans interested by occasionally making McRib available without notice at a store or two. It's not so much about sales (though the sandwich can spike sales at an individual store), but cultivating the myth and maximizing the public relations benefit. 

"The McRib is interesting in that it's wildly successful, but McDonald's chooses not to add it to the permanent menu," Sam Oches, an editor at QSR Magazine, a trade journal for the fast-food industry, told CNBC. "In doing so, it elevates it to a pedestal that customers put it on."

Because the McRib is brought back for short periods of time and often in limited markets, its value to the company is not in direct contribution to the bottom line.

The same is likely true for the Double Down -- in 2010 Yum Brands Chief Financial Officer Rich Carucci told CNBC that sales of the sandwich had an "immaterial" impact for the overall company.

KFC is doing anything for attention
KFC had an off year in the United States in 2013 with Yum brands admitting it "under-performed," but saying the company has "exciting new product innovations and more compelling value planned to improve our performance in the growing chicken category" in 2014. The Double Down may be part of those plans but the no-bread sandwich is not the only way KFC is seeking to gain attention and shake up the market.

Earlier this month the company launched a chicken corsage "just in time for prom season." The corsage, which was sold through Nanz & Kraft (an online florist) is a regular corsage with space to add a drumstick from KFC. This was clearly a publicity stunt as only 100 were made available (though the website says 100 more are coming), but the stunt clearly worked as hundreds of media outlets wrote about it.

KFC needs all the help it can get in the U.S. as the company continues to face intense competition from its fast food rivals and the growing fast casual category. The brand actually finished 2013 with fewer U.S. stores (4,491) than it had in 2012 (4,618) and while Yum did not specifically break out U.S. sales for KFC in its annual report, the overall company had a down year revenue-wise dropping from $13.6 billion in 2012 to $13.1 billion in 2013.

Doube Down is a stunt but it's a good one
The Double Down is ridiculous and it's clearly a stunt by KFC to get media attention and bring customers in the door. It's a stunt however that's working as the return of the Double Down garnered the kind of national news attention usually reserved for a visit from the Pope or a Kardashian wardrobe malfunction.

KFC is copying the McDonald's playbook, which is a great idea because McDonald's has been a consistent winner. The Double Down should bring customers into KFC and the chain needs the added business. Whether it can capitalize on the increased traffic remains to be seen, but the short-term presence of one of the silliest sandwiches ever devised should be a good thing for KFC.

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends McDonald's. The Motley Fool owns shares of McDonald's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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