Yum’s Greg Creed offers some parting wisdom

Photograph courtesy of Yum! Brands

Lovers of the safe and steady will rest a little easier after Greg Creed retires at year’s end. It’ll be a welcome respite after the fright they were dealt at this year’s Global Restaurant Leadership Conference (GRLC), when the outgoing CEO of Yum Brands shared his take on marketing, leadership and what’s ahead for the industry. It was classic Creed.

Consider, for instance, how he boiled down the company’s renowned marketing cheek to three letters, and not the F-C-K that headlined KFC’s apology in the United Kingdom for running out of chicken one weekend. The man who gave us “Think Outside the Bun” and “Live Mas” said the formula comes down to RED: relevant, easy, distinctive. 

What the acronym misses is the Creed-slash-Yum twist. A case in point: how the company promoted coupons in the U.K. while Prime Minister Theresa May was struggling to negotiate a Brexit exit plan that Parliament would accept. Yum ran a coupon-loaded ad headlined, “Theresa, here’s how you do a deal.”

“We got triple the response to a standard coupon,” Creed said in his keynote address at GRLC, a gathering of C-suite restaurant executives from around the world.

The approach underscored the characteristics Creed cited as the three key traits of a great leader: smart, heart and courage. 

Smarts and courage may be self-evident, said Restaurant Business’ 2019 Restaurant Leader of the Year. Heart can be the head-scratcher, he suggested. 

“You have to have heart for people, but you also have to have a heart for the business you’re in,” Creed said. 

He tied that attribute back to marketing, not so mildly suggesting self-anointed experts from academia tend to champion complexity instead of emotional connection in the how-to marketing books they crank out. 

“We’ve made marketing complicated and boring,” Creed declared. 

Under Creed and his predecessor, David Novak, Yum saw no reason to live with a safe and supposedly sage approach. “We found a framework in which our 2,000 marketers can do a better job of selling our products,” Creed said. 

They took a hammer to convention with moves such as renting a whole hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., during the resort’s dead summer season and converting the property for a weekend into a Live Mas-themed Taco Bell Hotel. The stunt delivered the sort of attention for Yum’s Mexican chain that would make academia’s marketing experts step away from their lecterns. 

“I had people calling me up and asking if they could license Taco Bell hotels all over the world,” Creed said. “We now have airlines and cruise ships talking to us about how they can create a Taco Bell airlines experience and a Taco Bell cruise ship experience.”

Creed appeared at the opening session of GRLC, a four-day event held recently in Singapore. He called it one of his last stops “on a whirlwind tour prior to retirement.”

He used the occasion to present his parting view of how the restaurant industry is changing. He offered these seven reshaping trends:

Good as status: “If you go back into the old days, status was about having things that few people had, that made you different,” said Creed. Today, he said, prestige comes from doing what’s right on a societal or environmental basis.

Automation of the mundane: “A dishwasher is an analog robot—no one wants to wash dishes,” he said.  “We’re becoming incredibly dependent on automation. Eighty-eight percent of Americans cannot drive a manual car. Seventy percent of people cannot sew on a button.”

Predict me: “Companies that aren’t using AI [artificial intelligence] will be written off as clunky.  It’s not about intelligence. It’s about the ability to predict,” said Creed. “We are already using AI predicting technology at Taco Bell.” 

Bold purpose: “Brands have to have a bold purpose,” he said. “This is critically important. Why? Because everywhere around the world people are making decisions based on a business’ social purpose. Making a lot of money is no longer just a reason to exist.” 

The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer: Creed called it “a big one, which is disturbing.” He explained that the middle class is eroding, leaving fewer core customers for the chain restaurant business. The burgeoning upper class may not be interested in value, traditionally a core attraction. People at the other end of the scale may not have the money to afford even low-priced items. “This is not going to go away—the top 1% of the U.S. have about 20% of the income,” said Creed. “When we make decisions, we have to make them in the context of what’s happening in society.” 

Retraining against human irrelevance: “What’s about to occur is, machines are about to replace us,” said Creed. How should the industry address that upheaval?

Generational anxiety: Research shows that the psyche of young consumers differs profoundly from the mindset of their elders, but not necessarily in the way many leaders think. For instance, security is a major factor, as is loneliness. 

Creed advised the industry to view the industry with a fresh perspective. His comments suggested that his is remaining iconoclastic right to the end of his formal career.  

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