Q&A with Benjamin Jerome, the man who’s taking KFC to the masses in Cambodia

Benjamin JeromeIn 2008, Benjamin Jerome moved from Sabah, Malaysia, where he’d started his career as a KFC restaurant manager a decade earlier, to lead the launch of the Colonel’s famous chicken in Cambodia. Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks – then working for Campaign Asia – was in Phnom Penh to interview Jerome about his hopes for the first Western fast food brand in Cambodia, which started out with a single restaurant on Monivong Boulevard in the heart of the capital.

Seven years later, Hicks caught up with Jerome in the offices of Royal Group, a huge conglomerate that part owns KFC Cambodia’s operating company, Kampuchea Food Corporation, to see how business is going.

When we met in 2008, you’d just opened the first KFC restaurant in Cambodia (and aimed to open between four and six in first year and two every year after that). How many are up and running now?

The inside of KFC in Siem Reap

The inside of KFC in Siem Reap

Twelve in total; 11 in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap.

If there’s one thing that has made KFC popular in Cambodia, what is it?

It’s because of the chicken itself. Before KFC entered the market, there were two local brands selling fresh chicken, BB World and Lucky Burger. We came and gave people another choice which has proved to be particularly popular.

KFC is a case study in how a Western brand localises in Asia. How have you done that in Cambodia?

KFC Mountain Dew promo

Pic: KFC Cambodia’s Facebook page

We’ve introduced quite a few local menu options, for instance Koh Kong sauce chicken, which was a best seller when we introduced it in April.

For the last three months, we’ve been running a campaign with PepsiCo. The campaign introduces Mountain Dew to Cambodia, and at the same we have devised a value proposition that is very affordable. KFC has been seen to be expensive, and the campaign aims to communicate value for money [a Crispy Chicken Tamarind rice with a bottle of Mountain Dew costs US$2.20].

Is KFC still essentially a treat for the relatively wealthy?

For A or B socio-economic level Cambodians – the upper middle and upper class – it is very affordable. For the lower and lower-middle class it is still a challenge. What this group typically has to spend in a single day – from around Riel 8,000 to 10,000 (US$2-2.50) – is what a meal will cost them at KFC.

Having said that, we don’t want or expect to convert everyone to eat at our restaurants every day. KFC is an aspirational brand in Cambodia. Eating at KFC is something to do on a special occasion – a time to celebrate or be rewarded for passing an exam or getting a promotion at work.

Where is the brand now among Cambodians and where do you want to take it?

Right now, we are very strong among young working adults and students. We are very famous for our chicken and we still maintain that position. But we want to reach the C socio-economic group, which is a third of the population. Once we can get the brand near to Cambodians from all demographic groups, then we will have a successful business model.

Cambodia is still a fairly traditional ad market, but digital has been growing fast. How has KFC been using digital media to reach young Cambodians?

We’ve been using traditional media such as radio, TV, print and billboards. But Cambodia has a very high penetration of people using digital media – around 20 per cent of the population. But all of this development has only really happened in the last two years. The affordability of a smartphone is now well within reach of a middle class Cambodian. We want to diversify our communication channels and put more emphasis on digital, and not necessarily social media but online ordering. Seven years ago, using a credit card in Cambodia was very alien. But it’s less of an issue now. The next big wave for Cambodia will be e-commerce.

We are now working on how to launch an e-commerce platform. We want to drive engagement across all of our digital channels, we want to revamp our website and we want to be a pioneer for online ordering for this market. Some private companies have been doing this, and we are looking for expertise in developing a great e-commerce platform. If we find the right partner, we’ll be looking to launch next year.

An ad for KFC’S SMS ordering service, uploaded to YouTube in 2013:

Which ad agencies do you use?

So far, we’ve used a local boutique agency (there are very few international agencies in Cambodia) called Tequila that does everything from creative to media.

I’ve been in your home market of Malaysia, and Indonesia over the last month or so, and consumer and business confidence isn’t great in both countries right now. What’s your sense of the mood in Cambodia?

The business community in general has a very positive outlook for the next three to five years. The main reason for this is that the property sector has been creating more satellite cities, and international shopping malls such as Aeon are giving Cambodians more places to shop and eat. If you just look around Phnom Penh you can see a lot of infrastructural development, and all of this indicates that there is growth with the emergence of a middle class. Another plus point for Cambodia is its dual currency, using both the Riel and the US dollar.

Burger King entered the market relatively recently. What do you make of them as competition? Is there enough growth in the market to sustain another fast food player?

The industry can still accommodate the entry of many more brands, and Burger King’s entry into Cambodia is an interesting development. It will give us a better yardstick for comparison with the competition. It’s hard to compare us with local brands since they don’t spend much on marketing. It will be good for the industry, as it will mean local competition will have to raise their standards.

How long before you are profitable?

It normally takes nine and 18 months for a store to become profitable. Some have taken longer than we have projected. Others, for instance our restaurant in Aeon mall, have been profitable within a single month. As I think I said to you in 2008, it’s all about location, location, location.

What are your hopes for growth in the future?

We have projected that from now through to 2019 we will have 20 stores in Cambodia. But with the fast development of new satellite cities, we may well be able to open up to 25 restaurants in that time.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your job?

Retaining talent. With so much competition coming into the market, retaining talented employees is a big challenge. Getting new workers is not a problem. But they need the right training, and this involves a significant cost. To lose one of our trained employees means we have to go back to the drawing board with someone new. Everything else is relatively easy. You can build an outlet, you can get the customers. But managing the outlet is the hardest part.


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