‘You can feel the creativity’: KFC on building a ‘brand for the nation’

Five years ago, it was viewed by consumers as a “faded old man”. Now KFC is Marketing Week’s Brand of the Year and considered one of the creative success stories of the past 18 months. CMO Jack Hinchliffe explains why the hard work is paying off.

To say KFC’s brand has stood up to the demands of the Covid crisis would be an understatement. From closing 500 restaurants across the UK and Ireland and pausing its six-decade old slogan, to bringing fan creations to TV screens and launching its first global campaign, it’s been a big year for the fried chicken chain.

Aside from winning plaudits for the fruits of its relationship with longstanding creative partner Mother, KFC’s marketing philosophy is paying off financially. The UK business contributed 6% of KFC’s total global sales during the second quarter, according to the latest results from parent company Yum! Brands, up 248% on the same period last year.

Success over the past 12 months has been topped off by KFC winning the Marketing Week Masters 2021 Brand of the Year award, sponsored by The Independent, beating a shortlist boasting Asos, Channel 4, Tesco and Camelot.

The award is testament to the team’s “amazing work, effort, energy and passion”, says CMO Jack Hinchliffe.

The marketing boss assumed the top role in July, following the departure of former CMO Meghan Farren, who joined Asda as chief customer officer this month. Hinchliffe has been part of the KFC marketing team for more than six years, including roles as head of innovation and latterly marketing director.

“Our success has in no small part been driven by our consistency,” he reflects. “Doing the diagnosis, setting a clear vision, developing the right strategy, then executing with consistency and staying the course.”

I’m fortunate to come in as CMO at a time when the KFC team is the strongest it’s ever been.

Jack Hinchliffe, KFC

Describing creativity as the cornerstone of his marketing philosophy, Hinchliffe firmly believes in the power of creative to drive business outcomes. Working collaboratively with brilliant creative people, he argues, has delivered such strong commercial results.

“The success we’ve had when it comes to delivering business outcomes through great creative output has been a lot about culture as much as anything else. I’m very fortunate to be leading a phenomenal marketing team with amazing talent and to partner with the best creative agency in the country, or perhaps the world,” says Hinchliffe.

The KFC CMO explains these are relationships built on trust and having the courage to pick the “best, most courageous work” has a cyclical impact.

“It raises the bar for everyone. For us, for our agency partners and it means you continue to get the best people working with you, you continue to get shown the best work,” he argues.

“When it comes to putting creativity at the heart of what we do we always seek to treat our agencies as an extended part of the KFC team. We’re mindful of using data and research to make work better, but not be beholden to it. To trust in great creatives, rather than to overly research. That allows us to make better decisions faster.”

How KFC shook off its ‘fading old man’ image

Today’s success is the product of hard work and KFC is far from complacent. Five years ago, the business embarked on what managing director Paula MacKenzie describes as a “seminal” piece of research, which identified a brand relevancy challenge.

During the research, consumers were asked to describe KFC as a person. The answer was an old man, perhaps a former musician, who was once cool but now lives alone.

Describing the experience as “heart-breaking”, Hinchliffe says the team went into the process believing they had a communications issue and realised the real problem was relevance. There were “dark moments over those five years”, says MacKenzie, who explains it takes the whole business to bring about change.

The result was a strategy to transform the brand into one perceived to be youthful, energetic and “firmly on the cultural code”. This meant everything from redeveloping the menu to changing the approach to communications.

The research was refreshed three months ago and the results were “night and day different” to where the brand was in 2016. The plan is to keep refreshing the research, working on the challenges that persist and evolving the tactics to fit the cultural context.

Reopening in style

The work KFC put in to rejuvenate its proposition stood the brand in good stead as the country went into lockdown in March 2020. As the business closed its restaurants across the UK and Ireland, the marketing team began developing a strategy for reopening.

They understood the importance of driving brand salience in a distinctly KFC way, but that presented a challenge. How do you keep the conversation going with customers when you don’t have a single core brand asset open?

The answer came from the insight that people were at home missing KFC. As locked down customers shared pictures of their DIY fried chicken creations, social campaign #RateMyKFC was born. Generating hundreds of tweets and an engagement rate of 101%, fans tagged KFC hoping the brand would give their homemade delicacies a hilarious dressing down.

As the business then started to negotiate the challenge of reopening under social distancing measures, the marketers considered how to utilise KFC’s distinctive brand voice, something Hinchliffe sees as one of the brand’s biggest assets.

“We’ve made huge strides refining that over the last few years and we know we can engage in cultural moments and tap into cultural context. So, where a lot of other brands were going down very similar routes focusing on togetherness and emotional messages, our role in culture is to bring levity, joy, authentic humour. We wanted to liven up the moment,” he explains.

“We created things like KFC Clash where we had celebrities and influencers recreating KFC products and raising money for Comic Relief. Then when it came to announcing the reopening and the fact we reached 500 restaurants, we launched a tongue-in-cheek comeback campaign where we used the user generated content from #RateMyKFC.”

Looking to “steal share of voice” with a bold reopening campaign celebrating fan devotion, KFC showed images of the DIY creations set to the soundtrack of All By Myself by Celine Dion. The fried chicken chain signed off with the message that it had missed its fans too, but it would “take it from here”.

Hinchliffe explains that it never felt like a risk to emerge from lockdown with a cheeky campaign.

‘We’re back’: KFC launches tongue-in-cheek ad as it reopens for delivery

“We knew it was absolutely the right thing for us to bring our personality and react in an authentic and human way to the situation everyone was experiencing,” he says.

“We did some research that helped us understand where sentiment was, but we didn’t research the work. There wasn’t any risk in our tone, the only risk for me would be if we suddenly converted to hyper-emotional ‘We’re all in this together’ messaging.”

Emerging from the first lockdown the business needed to trade its way to recovery, which meant bringing back promotions and negotiating production challenges. It was crucial to maintain agility across the marketing mix in order to maximise opportunities.

Pressures in the hospitality sector also meant that, rather than its tone of voice, any risk was attached to the amount of money being spent at a time when only 500 restaurants were open, Hinchliffe explains.

“We didn’t know if we would be able to maintain them being open, so most of the risk sat in ‘Is this the right time for us to advertise on AV? Is this the best use of our investment, because we don’t know what the rest of the year holds?’” he recalls.

However, the fact the campaign amplified a consumer behaviour in true KFC style meant the reopening campaign instinctively felt like the right move.

Crafting a comeback

For MacKenzie, there are three questions she always asks when presented with a new campaign or proposition. Is it on strategy? Is it undeniably KFC? Is it going to make us famous? Get a tick on those three questions and she believes the business is onto something special.

This was the place KFC got to in August 2020, when it went live with its first global campaign explaining the decision to temporarily pause its 64-year-old slogan – ‘It’s Finger Lickin’ Good’.

The irony was in February 2020 KFC had embarked on a new campaign designed to put meaning back into its famous slogan, showing people licking their fingers across every touchpoint.

“I remember at the launch party somebody said ‘Do you think Covid is going to have an impact on this campaign?’ and I said: ‘No way’,” Hinchliffe recalls.

“It was two days later I was in Mother’s office and we were making the decision to pull it as soon as we’d launched it. That was because none of us knew what the next 18 months would have in store, but that was us acting responsibly and trying to make sure that we weren’t being tone deaf to the situation.”

By the summer, KFC had decided to pause its iconic tagline entirely, deeming it “the most inappropriate brand slogan of the moment”. But rather than making this a serious corporate statement, the team decided to have some fun.

KFC took over Piccadilly Lights and pixelated It’s Finger Lickin’ Good, the start of a big outdoor campaign. The team asked influencers and customers to come up with temporary taglines and even briefly borrowed slogans from other brands, giving this serious decision a lightness of touch.

“We knew that because we had such an iconic slogan we had a big opportunity, as well as a risk, in removing it. It was a critical time for the brand if we think about where we were in the cycle of the global pandemic,” Hinchliffe explains.

“It was therefore an opportunity for us to reinforce our responsibility messages. We were getting rid of the slogan for the right reasons and behaving responsibly throughout the pandemic, but doing that in our own way.”

Fast forward to May 2021 and it was time to resurrect It’s Finger Lickin’ Good. The marketers considered how to bring the slogan back, realising that pausing it was always going to be more interesting. The team also didn’t want to look like they were passing comment on the state of the pandemic.

KFC resurrects ‘finger lickin’ good’ tagline

The result was ‘Your Chicken Could Never’, a comeback campaign – set to the dulcet tones of Barry White – which brought the slogan back in a way that enabled the brand to celebrate the lengths its fans had gone to to show their love for KFC.

Having such passionate fans is a significant asset, particularly in a moment of crisis. However, the marketing team were keen to strike a balance.

“There’s a huge amount of love for the brand, but we also need to recognise that there’s a lot of people for whom KFC is just one brand of many and there’s a lot who don’t consider the brand today,” says Hinchliffe.

“My team’s objectives are to continue to build a mass brand with wide reach, which really does appeal to everyone and actually as much as the Your Chicken Could Never campaign is about celebrating our fans, it’s also about showing that we are a brand for the entire nation.”

Celebrating talent

When it comes to measuring the effectiveness of its advertising, KFC has a two-speed strategy “to drive sales overnight and build a brand over time”.

Short-term returns are tracked on an hourly, daily and weekly basis, whereas when it comes to brand building the team consider key metrics such as brand consideration. Consideration and overall brand health, as measured by the YouGov BrandIndex, are seen as lead indicators to commercial success, alongside sales performance over time, market share and brand penetration.

“Market share is important to track, but we know that our performance in YouGov brand health and our proportion of performance versus competition is going to be really important in driving that,” Hinchliffe explains.

“We’ve done a lot of work to understand and codify the drivers that make us relevant in our category and we measure those. So, value perception, convenience perception, taste scores, all of those are important indicators and we measure those on an ongoing basis.”

Going forward, digital transformation is seen as critical to driving growth. The goal is to become a “true omnichannel retailer”, which means seamlessly linking restaurants, drive-through and delivery.

The only risk for me would be if we suddenly converted to hyper-emotional ‘We’re all in this together’ messaging.

Jack Hinchliffe, KFC

The brand is also set to dial up its community focus and share more about its work on animal welfare. KFC went live with an ad in July celebrating its top tier status in World Animal Protection’s 2021 league table ranking fast food chains on their commitment to chicken welfare. Forthcoming communications platform Behind the Bucket will shine a light on KFC’s responsible brand credentials.

Beyond delivering from a business perspective, the creativity of KFC’s marketing is having a halo effect on talent. Hinchliffe is recruiting for a marketing director and says the quality of the talent has been “absolutely phenomenal”.

“If I was having these conversations five or six years ago, I’m not sure necessarily that I’d be speaking to the level of talent that I have been,” he says.

“When you’re speaking to people about why they’d like to join KFC from a marketing perspective, people are talking to me about the fact you can feel the creativity, you can feel the empowerment, you can feel the bravery and accountability that sits within the team.”

The KFC CMO believes people and culture will always trump strategy, which is why he wants to invest in the team. He has, for example, put all the marketers through the Marketing Week Mini MBA.

This also means creating an environment where people can take risks “free of fear”. Reflecting on the past 18 months, Hinchliffe believes this kind of supportive culture has given people the freedom to deliver their best work.

“I’m fortunate to come in as CMO at a time when the KFC team is the strongest it’s ever been. I’m fortunate enough to work every day with amazing minds, with brilliant people and therefore continuing to attract diverse talent, to invest in it and look at innovative ways to build talent within our team is going to be really important,” he adds.

“What’s delivered the success we’ve experienced over the last couple of years has been the people and therefore that’s where my energy and commitment has to be first and foremost.”

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