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What We Can Learn from Fried Chicken

How a food’s evolution signals a shift in America and why marketers need to care
  • April 16 2012

Food is a lens through which we can understand culture and ultimately, people. It’s a tangible expression of shared values and beliefs, which connect (and divide) us. At Draftfcb, we monitor consumers’ evolving relationship with food for clients like KFC and Kikkoman.

Take fried chicken. There’s nothing more American than fried chicken.

But lately, satisfying the simple craving for our favorite comfort food has become increasingly complex. It’s no longer a matter of white or dark meat. It’s on-the-bone or off-the bone. It’s deep-fried, pan-fried, oven-fried, even grilled. It’s savory; it’s spicy, sweet, spicy and sweet, crispy or extra-crispy.

More restaurants are serving ethnic variations, like Korean-style at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York. And this trend isn’t isolated to restaurants or food trucks. In 2011, we helped launch Kikkoman’s version of kara-age, fried chicken seasoned with soy and ginger.

Outside of America, fried chicken is changing too. KFC has had unprecedented global success by catering to local preferences. In Hong Kong, KFC offers Uma-Dare chicken, flavored with sesame.

So if fried chicken no longer resembles the fried chicken of decades past, what does that mean for America?

The departure from the homogeneity of salt and pepper to more foreign flavors is arguably inherently American. Today, we celebrate diversity. Why not in food?

According to Sloan Trends, 76 percent and 65 percent of American families eat Mexican and Asian food, respectively, regularly at home. Modern American cuisine reflects modern America.

Whether we want to admit it or not, more change is imminent, and not just in what we eat. As Stuart Hall, famed cultural theorist said, “modern societies are therefore by definition societies of constant, rapid and permanent change.”

Between 2000 and 2010, Hispanics accounted for more than half of U.S. population growth, while the Asian population grew 43 percent, faster than any other racial group.

What’s more, by 2042, the Census projects that minorities will be the majority. In some regards, this is already a reality. More than half of the populations of California, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas are minorities.

This raises an interesting paradox: the smaller the world becomes online and the more connected we become offline, the more fragmented and nuanced our identities become. The classic metaphor of America as a melting pot or a salad bowl is not entirely accurate. Rather, America offers an endless menu of options from which each of us can decide who to be and what to believe.

Thus, the challenge becomes how to resonate with a moving and shape-shifting target.

Chasing subcultures within subcultures is a losing proposition. As modern America becomes more fragmented, it’s imprudent for us to compartmentalize consumers in ways that we can easily wrap our heads around.

Like people, brands can’t be everything, be everywhere, or have an answer to every question. The silver lining is that people still want to connect with people, not brands. As counterintuitive as it may seem, don’t strive to be infallible. Strive to be more human.

Participate—be a part of culture. Have a point-of-view—in fact, many points of views. Make a tangible impact on the world. Embrace the platforms; use them to give each facet of your brand a voice. And if consumers want to hear from you, be prepared to talk back.

These changes to marketing might be hard to swallow, but if we don’t adapt, we risk becoming an anachronism. Maybe if we think about them more like the evolution of fried chicken, then it will be easier to accept.  Underneath it all, it’s still chicken.


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