TOKYO, Dec. 20, 2010 -- Forget Santa Claus. When it comes to Christmas marketing in Japan, Colonel Sanders may take the top prize.
While Christmas isn't a national holiday in the country, Kentucky Fried Chicken has managed to make eating its packaged chicken meals a holiday tradition.
The colonel's recipe is so popular here, the fast-food chain recommends customers place their Christmas orders two months in advance.
"Our holiday sales are five to ten times higher than other months," said spokesman Sumeo Yokokawa. "In Japan, Christmas equals KFC."
KFC's popularity can be traced back to a highly successful marketing campaign that began nearly 40 years ago.
At the time, the Christmas holiday wasn't as widely celebrated in Japan.
Yokokawa says many foreigners came to eat at KFC because they couldn't find a whole turkey or chicken anywhere else.
A KFC employee saw an opportunity to cash in, and the company launched its first Christmas meal in 1974: chicken and wine for $10, a pricey meal at the time.
"The Japanese are keen to celebrate Christmas in a non-religious way," said Roy Larke, a Rikkyo University Business Professor. "There's a certain amount of nostalgia attached to the KFC Christmas meal. People try to pass the tradition onto their children."
The traditional Christmas party barrels sell for about $40 these days – a family pack that includes fried chicken, a salad, and chocolate cake. But the holiday menu isn't limited to fried chicken.
KFC offers roast chicken, smoked chicken, even barbecue chicken for a limited time.
Yokokawa says each store is limited in the amount of chicken it can fry, so the company expanded the menu to make sure customers don't go home empty-handed.
KFC's Japanese stores posted its highest holiday sales in 14 years last year, and Yokokawa says they are on track to break that record this year.
At the KFC store in Tokyo's trendy Ebisu neighborhood, a "sold out" sign greeted customers looking to order the Christmas party barrel. Yokokawa says the company estimates it will sell more than 240,000 of those barrels, alone.
"You can't go through Christmas without KFC," said customer Akane Yoshida. "The KFC ads are everywhere during the holidays. You can't help but think about it."
Those ads feature young children wearing Santa hats, dancing around with KFC barrels in hand. There's even a special KFC Christmas jingle that plays in the back, while the children remind viewers to get their holiday orders in early.
They're not the only ones getting in the spirit. The colonel himself dresses up in a Santa suit – the statue greets customers at most stores.
"KFC has managed to hold their own during the Christmas holiday," said Larke. "They've got a long history of very aggressive, very intelligent marketing. I don't think anybody can match that."
Competitors are trying.
Department stores and convenience stores now offer their own version of fried or roast chicken. This year, McDonalds entered the Christmas market with its "iCon' Box:" a packaged meal that includes chicken strips, chicken nuggets, French fries, and Christmas-themed cell phone strap.