Stepping into a Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1993 in predominantly black neighborhoods in cities such as Atlanta, Louisville and Newark, customers were surprised to see a few changes to their local fried-chicken franchise. R&B and hip-hop had replaced the standard Muzak blaring from the speakers, and on the menu, collard greens and red beans and rice sat alongside mashed potatoes and gravy. Strangest of all, though, were the employees behind the counter, dressed in a uniform, but with some more Afrocentric accents: vests and ties made from kente cloth, dashikis and kufi hats.
About 300 restaurants across the country got this makeover in the early 1990s, part of the fast-food brand’s “Neighborhood KFC” campaign. Gary Gerdemann, a spokesman for KFC, told Scripps Howard News Service that the campaign was an attempt to attract more black customers. “This is a marketing concept that was designed to put us closer to the communities we serve,” he said. “We started looking at our customer base and found an opportunity to align ourselves with the African American community.”
Decades later, the fast-food industry has seen a severe decline in popularity in the United States. But black customers remain as important to the industry’s bottom line as ever before. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2013 to 2014 African Americans over the age of 2 derived 20 percent of their food energy from fast food, compared with just 15 percent for whites and 16 percent for Hispanics.
Many health experts associate the enduring appeal of fast food to African Americans, especially those living in inner city areas, with food deserts, or the dearth of other options. But as campaigns like Neighborhood KFC show, one reason for fast food’s popularity among African Americans is that the industry has worked to build a relationship with black customers in ways that other industries have not. Fast-food companies opened a door to their restaurants with a carefully tailored message, and year after year black Americans have accepted the invitation.
The fast-food industry’s courtship of African Americans began in earnest in the 1960s, at a time racked with racial tension. As Chin Jou details in “Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food with Government Help,” when urban riots broke out across America after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon Johnson directed the Small Business Administration to lend money to businesses willing to create jobs in inner cities. Since they had proven business models and the backing of national advertising campaigns, fast-food brands had a natural appeal. And since franchise stores were independently owned, fast-food companies could benefit from the small business loans without taking on the risk of investing their own money in impoverished areas.
Franchising created other advantages for the fast-food industry in targeting African American consumers. Franchise owners were intimately familiar with the neighborhoods they operated in, and they understood their customers in a way fast-food executives did not. In the 1970s, at the insistence of some black franchise owners, McDonald’s hired Burrell Communications, a celebrated black-owned advertising agency in Chicago, to launch a campaign aimed at African American customers.
“McDonald’s was successful in the inner city, and the ones that could mimic it were the ones that survived,” says Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University and author of a forthcoming book on the history of African Americans’ relationship with fast food.
As their wealth accumulated, black franchise owners often became icons in their communities, supporting charitable causes like scholarship funds and Martin Luther King Day celebrations and further enhancing the image of fast food among black people.
By the late 1980s, the idea of black pride or black nationalism was flourishing. In 1988, Jesse Jackson began popularizing the term “African American” for the first time, to stress black people’s ancestral origins. Nationalist, even militant, black figures were becoming cultural icons, with Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” earning critical praise in 1992, and hip-hop groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A. seeing massive commercial success.
“There was this sense that there was an underlying interest in nationalistic messages,” says Robert Weems, a professor of business history at Wichita State University. “We saw corporate marketers find a way to tap into this sense of black militancy and pride to sell products.”
It was around this time that KFC launched its Neighborhood KFC campaign — with great success in at least in some areas. One regional manager told the Detroit Free Press that sales in 30 stores across Michigan had increased 15 to 30 percent since the campaign’s rollout. A KFC employee in New Jersey said the new sides were the quickest to sell out. “They taste pretty good,” one New Jersey customer told the Courier-News of the menu additions. “The colonel has been a favorite of mine for years, and this just makes it better.”
Weems says he’s not surprised by the apparent success of the campaign. “From the standpoint of African Americans … any time you have entities that tell black people ‘you matter,’ it’s going to have a receptive audience.”
The Afrocentric motif has waned since the 1990s, but fast-food companies have made other efforts to court African Americans. In the 2000s, KFC launched a campaign called Pride 360, which sponsored events at historically black colleges and universities. In 2007, the chain launched a singing contest under the Pride 360 banner, awarding an amateur singer who successfully incorporated words including “heritage,” “family” and the KFC name into a piece of music with an appearance on BET.
Not one to be left out of a fast-food marketing trend, McDonald’s has created its own campaign with an annual awards show honoring black celebrities for their contributions to the community and a gospel tour, now in its 12th year, under the banner “365Black.”
Beyond their promotional value, these campaigns have helped to build a relationship between fast food brands and a group of marginalized Americans in ways that few other industries have, Chatelain says. This marginalization and discrimination makes African Americans receptive to companies actually putting in the effort to ask for their business.
These overtures also reinforce fast-food restaurants’ natural tendency to treat customers equally. Rich or poor, black, white, Asian or Hispanic, wearing Sunday best or clothes from the church donation box, a person can expect to be treated in a respectful, predictable way when patronizing a fast-food restaurant. Especially for those with a memory of sitting on the black side of a segregated lunch counter, that expectation of equal treatment has long had an appeal, according to Chatelain.
“The moment when the fast food industry was beginning to think of the African American market, we were only a few years away from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” she says. “If we go from a moment in which public accommodation in the restaurant was a site of trauma and racial violence to one in which [the industry is] trying to convince consumers that it is a normal place to go, that there are not any prohibitions against you being there — you can understand why it becomes very appealing and very attractive for people to go to a fast-food restaurant.”
“Corporations, as big and as impersonal as they are, are able to form relationships with people, for good and for bad,” Chatelain says.
At least for fast food companies and franchise owners, the enduring success of fast food among African Americans shows that those relationships have paid off.