How can a fast-food restaurant marketing campaign turn into a Christmas-like tradition for millions?
Every Christmas, Ryohei Ando gathers together with his family in a holiday tradition. As his father did when he was little, his two children would reach into red and white buckets and pick up the best pieces of fried chicken they could find.
Yes, this is the joy of KFC Christmas for Ando's family. It may seem strange outside Japan, but for Ando's family and millions more will never let Christmas pass without Kentucky Fried Chicken. Every Christmas season an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families treat themselves fried chicken from American fast-food restaurants that have become a tradition throughout the country.
"My children think it's a natural thing," said Ando, who works in the marketing department of Tokyo's 40-year-old sports equipment company.
When millions of people celebrate Christmas with KFC, others in Japan treat themselves with a Valentine's Day-like romantic getaway, and the couple marks the event with a dinner in an upscale restaurant. For other Japanese families, Christmas is recognized but not celebrated in a special way.
But for those who want to participate, this is not as easy as going into a restaurant and ordering. December is a busy month for KFC in Japan - daily sales at restaurants over the Christmas period may increase 10 times more than usual. Special dinners often have to be ordered one week before. And those who do not do it often have to queue up for hours.
The origin of KFC tradition in Japan is the result of the company's promotion that 'every business that goes to Japan should learn'.
'Kentucky for Christmas'
According to KFC Japan spokesman Motoichi Nakatani, this tradition starts from Takeshi Okawara, KFC's first manager in the country. Shortly after this restaurant opened in 1970, Okawara woke up in the middle of the night and wrote down an idea that came through a dream: a "party bucket" for sale at Christmas.
Okawara dreamed of the idea after hearing a pair of foreigners at his shop talking about how they missed eating turkey at Christmas, Nakatani said. Okawara hopes the fried chicken night tomb at Christmas can be a good substitute, and then he starts marketing the "party bucket" as a way to celebrate the holidays.
In 1974, KFC did a national marketing plan, calling it Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii, or Kentucky for Christmas.
The effort quickly darted, as did the Okawara career who graduated from Harvard - rising to become president and CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan 1984-2002.
Tong Party for Christmas is rapidly becoming a national phenomenon, says Joonas Rokka, professor of marketing at Emlyon Business School in France. He studied KFC Christmas in Japan as a promotional campaign model.
"It fills the void," Rokka said. "There is no Christmas tradition in Japan, and when KFC comes and says, this is what you have to do at Christmas."
Company ads for Christmas food describe happy Japanese families gather around a fried chicken bucket. But this is not just the chest and chicken thighs - it has become a special family food box filled with chicken, cake and wine.
This year the company sells a Christmas dinner package from Kentucky Christmas that starts from a chicken box at a price of 3,780 yen or Rp430,000 to a packet of "premium" whole roast chicken and a companion meal at 5,800 yen or RP 660,000. According to KFC, sales of the package account for one-third of all annual sales in Japan.
It also helped the shops to dress the company's mascot, with the white-haired Colonel Sanders smiling, in Santa's costume. In a country with great respect for the elderly, the satin red dress quickly became a holiday symbol.
'One of the weirdest things I've ever heard'
This phenomenon is unique in Japan - and can look strange in a number of countries outside of this country. This idea is not possible at KFC's place of origin, says Kevin Gillespie, chef at two restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia.
"KFC at Christmas, this is one of the weirdest I've ever heard," Gillespie said. "If you buy a bucket of fried chicken for dinner at Christmas, to be honest, I will be angry with you."
This is not a joke of the product, of course, Gillespie says. The general idea is to bring fast food for dinner at Christmas time "will be seen as something rough for most people," Gillespie said.
In Japan, however, where about 1% of the population is Christian, Christmas is not an official holiday, Rokka says. So the idea that the family will spend the whole day cooking meat or turkey and complementary food is not practical. Compared, they came with a bucket of chicken.
"This is a signal of globalization, where this ritual spreads to other countries and is translated in different ways," Rokka said. "It's not an abnormal thing to own Ikea stores anywhere in the world.KFC for Christmas is just taking this consumerism attitude and turning it into a vacation."
A reason for reunion
After traveling abroad, Ando realizes that his country may be the only one who celebrates Christmas with a bucket of KFC. But for him, he sees that tradition is more than a form of corporate promotion.
For Ando, he still plans to get KFC for his children this year. But he went to the bakery as well to buy Christmas cakes. On Christmas Eve, families will gather around the KFC bucket, as Ando did in childhood, and like his children will do it with the next generation.
"It's like a symbol of a family reunion," Ando said. "It's not just about chickens, it's about getting the family together, and it just happens that there's a chicken that's part of it."