For most of KFC’s 69-year history, they’ve been selling chicken the same way: Customers walk or drive up, place their order, and wait for that familiar red-and-white bucket. As consumer-friendly e-commerce came to dominate other market segments, fast food remained stubbornly entrenched in the physical world.
This has changed significantly in the past few years. In 2016, only 2% of the food and beverage industry’s sales were online; by 2025 that’s expected to balloon to 15% to 20%. That’s driven primarily by bespoke fast-food apps, downloads of which grew by more than 21% in 2020 to 83 million.
KFC has been a major part of this shift thanks to a complete overhaul of its digital strategy. The international fried chicken chain created an entirely new customer experience that focuses on one simple goal: sell more chicken. “We built everything from the ground up,” says KFC CTO Chris Caldwell. “What we wanted to do with BASIC was work on the art of the possible—to explore how we could approach this project from a customer-first perspective and make the experience easier from start to finish.”
With the growth of these digital-first experiences came a proportionate rise in customer expectations, something Caldwell credits with how convenient modern technology has made—well, everything. “It used to be that, as a CTO, people didn’t call you unless something was broken,” he says. “And if a customer had to type in their credit card number, they [would become] frustrated.”
In order to build something that both evoked nearly one century of brand building while creating a seamless user experience for a global community of dedicated customers, Caldwell and his team turned to BASIC, a digital branding and experience design agency that is part of Dept. “KFC came in with a really distinct sense of what they wanted to build right out of the gate, and that was a best-in-class e-commerce platform,” says Andrew Yanoscik, vice president of creative at BASIC.
KFC had a web-based ordering platform when its engagement with BASIC began, though it was rudimentary, described by Caldwell as a “transaction engine” more than anything else. What it needed was an actual e-commerce platform that could provide both a frictionless, personalized way of ordering for customers along with a seamless back-end integration for their franchisees who would be receiving the orders. BASIC’s expertise with other e-commerce clients was attractive, but what set it apart was its interest in becoming a true partner with Caldwell’s team at KFC—identifying the company’s needs while creating a roadmap for developing a way for customers to order food easily wherever they were.
But just like the seemingly modest task of “selling more chicken” elides a complex set of goals, simply building a way for customers to place their orders wouldn’t be enough. Yanoscik and his team had to create something that was as demonstrably “KFC” as its secret blend of herbs and spices. “To truly build a brand-led digital experience, you have to aim to make it look, feel, and sound like something that could only be KFC,” Yanoscik adds.
BASIC started by immersing themselves in KFC’s culture. The BASIC team spent a lot of time at their partner’s Louisville, Ken., headquarters, working closely with Caldwell and members of KFC’s tech and brand staff. They knew that whatever they created would have to be unflinchingly focused on customer experience, without compromising on the priorities and needs of franchisees and store workers.
As one of the core goals of the entire project was putting more chicken in front of more people faster, speed became a priority for the new platform. But speed is a complex thing to deliver. How personalized is this platform to a single customer? How good is it at making recommendations? How good is it at omitting the things that customers have indicated they don’t like? Answering those questions is what Yanoscik describes as “building that lifetime value relationship” with customers.
The platform that KFC and BASIC built has been encouraging. Those working in KFC kitchens are happier because they have more insight into order volume, which helps them work more efficiently and stay out of the weeds during rushes. Customers are also being served a seamless ordering and pickup experience.
For franchisees, measuring success is straightforward. “They’re business folks; they’re driven by results,” Caldwell says. “And the reception has been extremely positive because they’re seeing those results.” Those have come in the form of a meteoric rise in digital sales: Orders made on the KFC app and through its e-commerce platform accounted for $10B in global and are set to eclipse that number significantly this year. In the U.S., same-store sales also jumped by 19% on a two-year basis in the second quarter of this year.
“Franchisees and stakeholders have seen success. And now they’re asking how we can move forward even faster,” Caldwell says. “We have an opportunity to take this model we’ve built with teams like BASIC and change other parts of our business while keeping that customer-centric mindset. We’ve got a lot of things up our sleeve.”
It may still take KFC 20 minutes to fry a batch of their chicken, but that’s about the only thing that hasn’t transformed about the company in the last decade.