The recent KFC ads are unremarkable. Mostly the usual stuff: shots of hungry men digging bicep-deep into a bucket of wings. But there's this strange little phrase—"kitchen fresh chicken"—that keeps popping up in the ads.
Well, I'm no Jacques Derrida. But I feel I may have deduced a semiological link here, between "kitchen fresh chicken" and "KFC." It sure looks as though someone wants to sneakily breathe new life into a tired, fading abbreviation *. The question is: Will they get away with it?
You'll recall that KFC at one time stood for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Right up until 1991, when they ditched all the actual words and just went with a monogram. Dieting trends had made "fried" a dirty cuss, and the plan was to banish it from view. Voila: KFC.
It wasn't the only time a brand name devolved into a jumble of letters. In 1985, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network became just ESPN, with no reference to the original meaning. In 1999, the American Association of Retired Persons (seeking to reflect the fact that their members needn't be American, or even retired) became AARP. Officially, those are just letters—not an abbreviation at all.
But it gets more nuanced when the abbreviation stays put while the meaning shifts beneath it, like some sort of signifying shell game. Way back during the mid-1980s frozen yogurt wars, there was a chain called I Can't Believe It's Yogurt, which sued competing chain TCBY because the letters stood for This Can't Be Yogurt. Unperturbed, TCBY deftly shifted its underlying name to The Country's Best Yogurt, kept the well-established abbreviation, and went on its merry yogurt-peddling way. (Few of us now remember the third fro-yo warrior, YSCCMTTIIFY, which stood for: You Simply Cannot Convince Me That This Is in Fact Yogurt!)
A few companies have rejiggered their abbreviations to shed regional links. TNN was once the Nashville Network, then became the National Network when it deep-sixed its hootenanny programming. (In a sequence I'm still not quite clear on, the channel later became—at various times—just plain TNN, the New TNN, the New National Network, and Spike TV.) And then there's the classic case of remembering where you came from, then forgetting, then remembering again when it becomes advantageous: Stewart Brothers Coffee turned into Seattle's Best Coffee; then became just SBC when it was expanding nationwide (and feared the name made it sound too parochial); then quickly reverted to Seattle's Best Coffee (when it realized that Seattle roots were not such an awful thing for a coffee brand to have).
Sometimes, the abbreviation is so recognizable that the company can't get rid of it, even if they can no longer find any worthy words to match up with the letters. YM magazine was once Young Miss, then became Young and Modern, and is now Your Magazine. Frankly, those all suck—the last just as much as the first. Your Magazine? Could there be a blander title? Why not call it Hey, Here You Go, Have a Magazine?
Anyway, the key in all this is keeping the brand identity strong, straight through the name transition. That's what KFC is banking on as they take those three famous letters, stripped of their meaning 13 years ago, and attempt to reinfuse them with a nearly opposite meaning. It won't work unless the consumer goes along for the ride.
This wasn't so much of a problem when Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC—lots of us already called it that. But just to make sure, KFC boosted the profile of Colonel Sanders, their familiar brand icon. The Colonel became more prominent in the KFC logo. In one unfortunate campaign, he even became an animated character—with the voice of Randy Quaid—and, in a dark chapter in KFC history, launched into a hip-hop dance while chanting, "Go Colonel! Go Colonel!"
Still, the KFC brand identity stayed intact. Will consumers follow again as they're asked to believe in "Kitchen Fresh Chicken"?
Of course we will, if we hear it enough as it blares from our televisions. Branding is at times a delicate alchemy. And at other times it's just spending lots of money. (Like when KFC tried to convince us fried chicken was a health food.) You hammer away at us with your insultingly wrongheaded message until our resistance wears down and we throw up our hands and we accede that yes, we suppose this chicken does come from a "kitchen" of sorts and, OK, by some tortured definition it could possibly be referred to as "fresh." It's all so finger-lickin' sad.
Correction, May 3, 2004:This piece originally referred to KFC, TCBY, ESPN and YM as acronyms. Linguistic sticklers have since pointed out that these abbreviations are not, in fact, acronyms. An acronym is a pronounceable word that consists of the first initials or syllables of the words in another phrase—think PAC for "political action committee," or snafu for "situation normal all f----d up." Only if the chicken-eating public regularly pronounced the name KFC as "kuffick" could Slate safely term it an acronym. We stand corrected. Return to the first corrected instance.