Last Updated May 12, 2009 7:18 PM EDT
Most recently El Pollo Loco attacked the bigger rival for not honoring its free grilled chicken coupons on Mother's Day. "What does KFC have against moms?" El Pollo Loco asked in an ad. El Pollo Loco went ahead and honored KFC coupons at its own branches on Mother's day, "Just like we honor moms."
"Wow, KFC," the ad continued. "Hope your Moms don't find out about this."
"They've gone directly for the jugular, and I'm impressed," a marketing expert told QSR.
El Pollo Loco specializes in grilled chicken -- a product KFC just released for the first time. Both companies have been giving free samples, and El Pollo Loco has been inviting customers to try each brand and compare them as part of its "Taste the Fire" campaign.
Our chicken is superior, El Pollo Loco has been arguing, because it's authentically flame-grilled, while KFC does its grilling in ovens. El Pollo Loco managed to give out 1.1 million pieces of free chicken to KFC's 4 million pieces -- pretty impressive considering its much smaller size.
And unlike KFC, El Pollo Loco made sure it was prepared for its campaign, beefing up on extra supplies and employees at all of its stores. In contrast, KFC had to apologize and issue rainchecks after a partnership with Oprah Winfrey wound up more successful than anticipated and several stores ran out of product.
The Taste the Fire campaign was not a last-minute reaction by El Pollo Loco; as CEO Steve Carley told the Wall Street Journal, "We've known KFC would come out with grilled chicken for a long time, and we've been working on a complete strategy to protect our equity as the flame-grilled chicken leader."
But along the way, Carley said, KFC's own missteps have provided El Pollo Loco with "several unbelievably spectacular opportunities" that allowed El Pollo Loco to "have even more fun than we planned on."
For example, at the beginning of the taste test, El Pollo Loco got a few calls from clients favoring KFC's grilled chicken, but it managed to trace some of those calls to KFC parent Yum Brands in Louisville, Ky. -- giving it yet another chance to gain publicity by attacking its new rival.