McDonald's vs. KFC for Japan's best 'festive feast'

McDonald's vs. KFC for Japan's best 'festive feast'

The season of goodwill becomes a battleground for fast-food meals as McDonald's tries to usurp KFC as Japan's Christmas chicken king
Kentucky Fried Chicken, Christmas, MacDonald's
A KFC holiday queue.

Christmas in Tokyo yields a special kind of wonder, an unofficial holiday spreading commercial good cheer. Open stores decked with decoration, romantic restaurants booked for Christmas-Eve date night (when reportedly condom vendors enjoy a robust sales spurt) and, of course ... holiday lines at Kentucky Fried Chicken. 

Kentucky Fried Chicken, Christmas, MacDonald'sColonel Sanders as Santa Claus.

A legend is born

KFC (or “kentakkii,” as it’s popularly known) launched its Japan-wide Christmas campaign in 1974 and since then has aggressively marketed its buckets as a holiday essential.

Today, as Public Radio International's Akiko Fujita has reported, "KFC commercials signal the start of the Christmas season in Japan."

According to the company, their holiday campaign was first conceived in 1971, at their Aoyama store. A homesick foreigner wandered in, bemoaned Japan’s lack of turkey, and chose fried chicken as the next-best alternative.

Today, the company claims, ”Japan has a custom of chicken for Christmas, and the origin of this custom is KFC.”

According to one Tokyo-based consumer, who gives her name as Chisato, this reasoning still holds sway. “Turkey here is hard to get, and we don’t have big ovens like in the United States, so it’s easier to eat fried chicken,” says Chisato. 

Rie, an office worker, explains that her family’s trigger for eating KFC on Christmas is always TV advertising. When “the ad comes on, someone says, ‘Why don’t we eat a KFC bucket on Christmas,’ and somehow, we all feel that’s a good idea,’” she says.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, Christmas, MacDonald'sKFC’s Holiday Bucket.

Japanese press declares 'Chicken War'

But in recent years, KFC’s Christmas supremacy has been in peril, as a new heavy-hitting contender has entered the ring: McDonald’s.

Dubbed a “chicken war” by the Japanese media, the battle of the bird has been heating up since 2010, when McDonald’s unveiled its fowl-centric "iCon" menu.

Popular business magazine Diamond reported it’s been “getting hotter and hotter in the chicken market,” especially since McD's CEO Eikoh Harada boldly proclaimed, “McDonald’s is No. 1 for chicken.”

An increasing emphasis on chicken

Although Harada admitted customers don’t yet think of McDonald’s as the leader in fast-food chicken, he pointed out that, with industry chicken sales at ¥392 billion and McDonalds’s with a 16.3 percent slice of the bird pie (¥64 billion), the Golden Arches actually holds top market share.

With the Yuletide season upon us, Kentucky is bound to track McDonald’s maneuvers, especially since KFC’s Naoyuki Oishi told the Japan Times, in a past interview, that the company’s average Christmas chicken sales represent 20 percent of annual revenue. 

Still, McDonald’s denies any outright challenge to KFC, saying, “We are not trying to attack KFC. We are just focusing on chicken." 

Kentucky Fried Chicken, Christmas, McDonald'sKFC’s Christmas Roast Chicken feels a lot like turkey to some consumers (no Western-sized oven required).

Foul call?

But industry watchers such as Diamond and Insights don’t buy McDonald’s pacifist intentions.

That changed in 2010, they claim, when KFC upped the ante by opening a new, high-concept Shibuya store -- right next door to McDonalds’s “strategic ‘next-generation’ shop.”

Still, a quick glance at both companies’ online real estate suggests that, for the time being at least, McDonald’s hasn’t launched an overt attack on the “Kentucky-for-Christmas” brand.

Thus, market watchers and revelers alike may have to wait until Christmases future to see whether the rivalry between McDonald’s and Kentucky erupts into a full-fledged holiday hoedown.