Back in April of 2010, the media was fast to descend on KFC's Double Down following the sandwich's debut in U.S. stores. Gleeful attacks on the bunless offering, which features two deep-fried chicken patties, bacon, two types of melted cheese and a "secret" sauce, included a takedown from The New York Times' Sam Sifton, who dismissed it as "stunt food" and a "new low" in the category at that. Despite the bad reviews, or perhaps buoyed by them, people bought the sandwich in droves. A month later, KFC had sold 10 million Double Downs and decided to extend the limited-time product's run indefinitely.
But reports of its initial success were downplayed by analysts, and the Double Down slowly slipped from the domestic spotlight. (A KFC spokesman would not confirm if it is still available in U.S. stores.) Yet in the last two years, the sandwich has popped up in one foreign market after the next, transforming the one-time April Fool's gag into a runaway fast food success worldwide.
The unlikely hit is the direct result of parent company Yum! Brands' successful strategy of transplanting concepts -- often outrageous ones -- across international markets. In addition to KFC, Yum! Brands' global portfolio includes Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, which all offer some products with shock-based appeal.
"We want our markets to be super innovative and disruptive," said Christophe Poirier, the chief marketing officer for KFC International, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "When you are are not disruptive ... you don't reinvent the game."
Poirier, who speaks in heavily French-accented English, has worked in several KFC markets in various capacities since 2005 and claims insider knowledge of product development across Yum! Brands. He's also overseen a number of outside-the-box products that have enjoyed considerable success. When a product fares well in one market, Poirier says, it's likely to do well in others.
Following the U.S. launch, KFC introduced the Double Down to other markets, beginning with Canada. It was later rolled out to stores in the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea.
"It was clearly U.S.-centric -- we did not have any intention to send it overseas," Poirier recalled. "But, we got the buzz on the web. In fact, there was so much pressure ... the venues were begging to get the Double Down."
As evidence of the Double Down's success in these markets, Poirier noted the frenzy that erupted upon the sandwich's introduction to Japan. Its arrival was advertised almost exclusively on Facebook and Twitter, and at the start the Double Down was only available at a single store. On the day of its debut, fans queued in long lines and slept on the sidewalk outside in hopes of snagging a taste.
"It was like the iPhone," Poirier recalled. A week later, the Double Down was released across Japan. "As you can imagine, people would be crazy ... it was probably the biggest event I have ever seen in terms of product," Poirier said.
The Double Down's success worldwide is a testament to the product's earning power, Poirier said, and its example gives the company some assurance in experimenting with wackier products.
Take, for instance, another Yum! Brands offering: the Crown Crust pizza from Pizza Hut Middle East. The pie's main feature is its stuffed crust, which in the past has been filled with hamburgers, chicken fingers and meatballs and cream cheese. It's proved wildly popular, particularly in the social media sphere, and according to Poirier, translated into "amazing" sales.
Poirier was tight-lipped about whether the Crown Crust would enjoy an international push similar to the Double Down. But actions speak louder than words -- last week, Pizza Hut Canada announced that it's offering a version of the pie with meatballs and cheese "gems" for a limited time.
Other new Yum! Brands products have enjoyed rollouts across world markets, too. Pizza Hut's Dippin' Strips were a bestseller in France before they debuted stateside in 2012, and a grilled chicken sandwich called the KFC Brazer was launched in France before heading to Germany, the U.K., Latin America and soon, the Middle East.
There's also KFC's Filet Bites, which debuted in Germany three years ago, before being introduced to the U.S. in the summer of 2012. Pizza Hut's Big Slider, first called iPan in India in 2011, became available in the U.S. over Super Bowl weekend. Aside from small tweaks to make an offering more palatable to a local population, these products are mostly the same from country to country.
"The funny thing is that in the world, we have more in common than we are different," Poirier says of the company's strategy. Yum! Brands capitalizes on global tastes during its biannual, two-week retreat in Dallas, where chief marketing officers can taste every Yum! Brand product that has enjoyed success somewhere in the world and decide if it should be introduced in their own markets.
So what's Yum! Brands' next international hit? Poirier wouldn't say. He did concede, however, that he's always "looking for wacky items. We are looking for food that people will die for it."