Nikita Mishra
Jul 8, 2024

KFC Thailand’s CMO on local flair, innovation, and his recipe for success

"Thailand is one big restaurant. We'd be out of our league if we claimed that KFC is competing against Thai street food," says CMO Suhayl Limbada.

Suhayl Limbada, CMO, KFC Thailand
Suhayl Limbada, CMO, KFC Thailand

Anyone in the quick-service restaurant (QSR) industry knows the term ‘quick’ is a misnomer. Sure, the delivery is fast, but behind the scenes, there is a meticulous strategy of pricing, adaptation, understanding local tastes and culture, and a commitment to long-term brand building.

Suhayl Limbada, the chief marketing officer at KFC Thailand, embodies this ethos, steering the brand through the complexities of a market renowned for its rich and diverse culinary traditions.

Thailand, and particularly its capital, Bangkok, is a gastronomic paradise. The city is a tapestry of flavours, with districts like Sukhumvit transforming into vibrant festivals every night. Street vendors, under the glow of yellow lamps, serve up stewed pork knuckle, oily chicken rice, and endless plates of piquant pad thai to a motley crowd of locals and travellers. These night markets are not just about food; they are about the communal experience, where people from all walks of life sit on the same plastic stools, sharing delicious dishes.

Amid this culinary richness, the challenge for a QSR like KFC is not just about delivering food quickly but about carving a niche and staying relevant. How does a KFC burger, which can be five times the price of a street-stall pad thai, compete in a market where affordability and taste are paramount?

In this interview, Suhayl Limbada shares his insights on how KFC Thailand navigates the intricate balance of tradition and innovation, local tastes and global standards, all while fostering a brand that is both iconic and adaptable.

Campaign Asia-Pacific exclusively caught up with Limbada in Bangkok during KFC Thailand’s 40th-anniversary event for this wide-ranging interview.

KFC recently celebrated its 40th anniversary in Thailand. It’s often touted as the top chicken restaurant in Thailand. What is the secret recipe or your winning formula?

Suhayl Limbada: Our unique value proposition lies in a combination of quality, local relevance, and brand heritage. That combined with a consistent hunger for innovation and to be champions of what's next. In terms of menus, products, or restaurants, our marketing and operations always desire to be different and authentic to the local culture.

Menu adaptation is critical to localisation, but we are very clear about our intentions: the Colonel launched the original recipe, and while we've evolved our signature recipes, we remain a fried chicken brand at heart.

Our fans are also the most important factor. It sounds cliched, but KFC Thailand has the best fans in the world. They are honest, engaging, passionate about the meals, and all-around phenomenal. The support has been the driving factor behind our success.

KFC consistently ranks as the top social media brand in Thailand. In a competitive digital-first market, how do you go beyond mere engagement to build a lasting brand presence and deeply connect with Gen Z, your primary audience?

Limbada: We have 1,100 restaurants across the entire country, and we literally serve meals to everyone. It would be a miss for me to say that, as a brand, we are going after only Gen Z. Having said that, I recognise the importance of digital-first initiatives in the current environment. The goal is to roll out a number of digital-first initiatives, starting with driving transactions through digital channels. We are focussing on growing our new KFC ordering app and rolling out kiosks, starting in Bangkok.

Getting back to your point on social media, it’s a very interesting space in Thailand. Social media usage and commerce are very high. We don’t just create content but see it as an opportunity to give fans an escape and engagement. We comment and respond to fan posts and try to engage on a personal level. We see social channels as an extension of our brand personality and do not use them as a sales pitch or a landing page to push users to.

I am a foreigner in this market [having lived and worked in Africa for the majority of his career], and I may not always grasp the nuances of Thai humour, but our agencies and team ensure we strike the right tone. It’s how we’ve cultivated a community of advocates and die-hard fans.  

KFC Thailand's Bucket Hat frenzy that went viral on social media

Thailand is one of the best food destinations in the world. The street food scene is rich, vibrant and competitive. How does KFC stand out?

Limbada: I agree. Thai street food is a different proposition; it's deeply rooted in culture and a huge brand in itself. We are not competing with that. We would be out of our lane if we started battling with Thai street food giants. So, I see competition in QSRs but also in convenience stores like 7/11s. I admire how 7/11 has been able to spread its wings throughout the world and benefit from adapting to the local market.

So, to stay relevant, we focus on a few key strategies: ensuring that our offerings resonate with local tastes is key. This means going beyond our traditional menu and introducing items that incorporate local flavours and ingredients. For example, Thailand’s Spicy Chicken Rice Bowl is a perfect blend of KFC's signature chicken with local spices on a bed of jasmine rice, which appeals to Thai palates.

It's also integral to create and invest in customer experiences that go beyond just the food. We’ve designed our restaurants to be value for money; they are trendy spots where young people and families spend time and have pleasant dining experiences. Most of our branches are located in pet-friendly malls in Thailand, and we actively participate in recycling fresh chicken bones to produce the 'KFC Bone Tie' snack, a beloved evergreen treat for dogs. [KFC Thailand's International Dog Day campaign below].

A lot of thought goes into designing outlets that are welcoming, comfortable and happy places, offering free drinking water and friendly, prompt service. This is particularly important in a market where fast food is not necessarily seen as the cheapest option.

Is market saturation your biggest challenge then?

Limbada: Yes and no. There’s no denying that it is an increasingly saturated environment. Thailand feels like one big restaurant, with numerous dining options that are vying for customers. Also, the global economy is still sluggish, and that doesn’t help either. Post-Covid, we see people are dining out and willing to hang out in restaurants, but the overall consumer behaviour has definitely changed. This forces us to ask how we can stay relevant. As a brand with 1,100 restaurants, we need to serve the entire country effectively in a way that makes sense for our business model. So, the biggest challenge is growing our restaurant base, sales, and transactions on a daily basis.

From a marketing perspective, the biggest challenge in the industry is the lack of big ideas. While technology and AI advancements are often cited as challenges, I believe the real issue is the failure to generate transformative ideas that can redefine the industry. So, this creativity gap is a challenge and a significant opportunity for KFC to tap into.

Is breaking through the clutter what keeps you up at night?

Limbada: Yes, I’d say, as a marketer, that lack of big ideas in the industry is a concern. Advertising has become a sea of sales. When was the last time you saw clever advertising that truly resonated and packed a punch? It’s rare these days.

Ads are becoming analogue and very product-focused these days, and not many marketers are thinking about simplifying customer experiences. Why don’t we talk about a concept or an emotion and not always pressure consumers into a sale?

Marketers have a responsibility to change this. We need to give agencies the space and freedom to excel at what they do best: creativity. It's time to rethink our approach and prioritise impactful, innovative ideas that go beyond mere transactions.

Thai advertising has a distinctive blend of emotion and humour, and that sets it apart from the rest of Asia and the Western world. Give us an example of a campaign that would resonate specifically with Thai audiences but wouldn't have the same impact elsewhere in Asia.

Limbada: Kai Jai Ded is a recent campaign we did, and I think that’s a good example. It is for extremely hot and spicy chicken; the burn from this can make you cry. The campaign taps into the Thai love for intensely spicy food. The menu item had been on hiatus for two years and made a fiery comeback due to fervent fan demands.

From a product, menu, and creative perspective, this is inherently Thai. Showcasing people who are genuinely enjoying the food but at the same time, like enjoying the suffering that came with the food, is a concept deeply rooted in the Thai culture. The campaign resonated really well here because it resonated on local insights, but perhaps wouldn't travel simply because the inside is so true to Thai Thailand.

Elaborate on the collaboration with Thai-Korean popstar BamBam for KFC Thailand’s 40th anniversary. Celebrity endorsements are big in Thailand but in the past KFC hasn’t had too many. 

Limbada: We have a celebrity of our own: the Colonel. And we’re very loud and proud about him. But for our 40th birthday, we wanted to make it memorable and fun for the fans. Our intention is to honour and entertain the fans and give them feel-good moments with this meet-and-greet with BamBam who is one of Thailand’s biggest celebrities.

Thai sensation BamBam's meet and greet with KFC fans in Bangkok
KFC Thailand X BamBam

We created a Kentucky Town Bangkok pop-up store, full of photo ops, experiences, impressive moments, and a bespoke menu of exclusive KFC treats. We also pulled out all the stops for a limited-edition streetwear collection. The event was a huge success, we got over a million tweets of the hashtag #KFCxBamBam—it was the top trending hashtag on Twitter/X. More than 20,000 people attended the special pop-up and we got over 100 million social media impressions.

In a grand celebration for their 40th birthday, KFC took over OOH media in commercial districts and transportation hubs at 277 locations all over Bangkok

Let’s talk about the other big pressure brand marketers face: localising content. How does KFC maintain its global identity while adapting to local cultures, particularly when introducing locally inspired menu items?

Limbada: Fortunately, KFC has a decentralised structure that allows our marketing efforts to come to life at the market level rather than being dictated by regional or global headquarters. In a landscape where customers demand more relevance and personalisation than ever, this flexibility enables us to elevate our game and deliver localised brand messages effectively. Whether it's adjusting flavours, customising menus, or creating unique promotions for festivals, inclusion remains our guiding principle, ensuring we resonate with local audiences while maintaining our global brand integrity.

Colonel Sanders [KFC’s American founder] once famously said, “I feed truck drivers and millionaires all at the same table.” This spirit of inclusion is key to our fabric and long-term strategy. Everyone is welcome at the table, and they won't come if the quality and taste associated with KFC don't accommodate local adaptations.

Take, for instance, our recent campaign for 'Crispy Zabb Skins.' Partnering with Brilliant & Million, we launched a social media initiative asking fans to send 10,000 heart emojis if they wanted this spicy chicken skin snack on the menu. The response was overwhelming, with over 300,000 heart emojis received. This direct engagement with our customers not only ensured the product's success but also created a sense of ownership and excitement among our audience. The product sold out within seven days, and our social-media engagement skyrocketed.

In 2023, we introduced the 'KFC Bone Tie' snack, made from recycled chicken bones, specifically catering to pet owners. This initiative aligned with local values of sustainability and community, further cementing our brand's local relevance.

The limited-edition artsy Songkran bucket

Our Songkran campaigns are another example of a localised strategy. In April 2024, we launched the 'KFC Songkran Bucket 2024' campaign with creative arm VML Thailand to celebrate Thailand’s beloved Songkran Festival. We introduced a special edition bucket with unique artwork depicting Thailand's cultural heritage. In line with the theme of the festival, the designs were made to evoke the feeling of reunions. The bucket became more than just a container to serve meals—for customers, it was a cherished item, a nostalgic keepsake during the auspicious season of Songkran.

As a CMO, what's a campaign that you wish you were a part of?

Limbada: I will give away my age with this one! The VW Night Drive by DDB London is an oldie but a goldie. One of the best car commercials in my view. It’s beautiful how the ad stimulates our 'driving emotions' without actually showing much of the VW Golf. The voice-over, the night imagery, and the copy are all excellent.

[Note: The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

Campaign Asia

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