Meghan Farren, KFC’s UK CMO, allows herself a wry smile when she talks about the ad the company put out in response to a crisis that saw stores across the country run out of chicken.
Where many brands might have tried to take a serious tone in fear of pissing off customers still further, KFC instead chose wit, rearranging the letters of its name to spell FCK as it issued an apology for the mess up. Farren admits it was a risk, but it is one that has clearly paid off.
KFC and its agency, Mother, gained praise from across the marketing industry (including from our columnist Mark Ritson) for the ad. And its creativity has been rewarded with a number of Gold Lions at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, it’s also a key reason why KFC has been nominated for Marketing Week’s Brand of the Year at this year’s Masters of Marketing awards.
The response helped turn what could have been a damaging crisis into something of an opportunity for the brand. YouGov BrandIndex shows that while the company’s index score (which measures a range of metrics including quality, value and reputation) plummeted at the height of the problems to -10.6, it has since recovered to -5.3 not far off the highs of -2.7 it saw pre-crisis.
Its impression score has also risen almost back to pre-chicken shortage levels, bringing it back up to neutral with a score of zero. And in recent weeks, its purchase consideration has been on the rise, up by five points in the past month to a score of +20.
“KFC can be confident that any trace of its faux pas back in February has been largely forgotten, and the brand will be looking to capitalise on the increased good-will that this campaign has fostered,” says Amelia Brophy, head of data products at YouGov.
Yet Farren admits that at the height of the crisis adverting was the last thing on KFC’s mind. The company was in “head-down mode”, with the marketing team seconded across the business to help answer calls from the media, respond on social media and man the depots. She had pulled the plug on paid media, and was instead focused on getting information out to customers, franchisees and staff.
I said, ‘You want me to write FCK on a bucket? You want me to turn our brand into a swear word?’ I was incredulous.
Meghan Farren, KFC
The fact Mother, despite being told to stop working, instead issued itself its own brief and came up with a comms plan (alongside its other agencies), is a “testament to how part of the team and integrated they are”, explains Farren. Mother had been following the tone KFC had taken on social media and saw “the humanity, but also the fun” and that KFC wasn’t shying away from the issues but instead taking the flak and working to fix it, says Mother’s joint chief creative officer Hermeti Balarin.
Yet when Farren saw the ad she admits she just dismissed it. “I said, ‘You want me to write FCK on a bucket? You want me to turn our brand into a swear word?’ I was incredulous,” she recalls.
“But anyone we showed it to, their first reaction was to smile and I thought, you know what, this is good, this is going to help connect with us and have some empathy and they’re going to pay attention. If we apologise in this way they’re going to take it seriously. I started to think we could do this, then we showed our lawyer and she just smiled. When the lawyer smiles you know it’s OK,” she says.
“We had nothing to hide or spin. We just wanted to get answers to everyone’s questions as fast as possible and match the tone to the tone of public sentiment. That’s one of my biggest lessons; it’s very easy when you are a business that is internally under immense pressure to forget that that context is not the context of the public.”
The importance of the agency relationship
The response highlights the importance of having an agency that really understands a business. Mother had been KFC’s agency for less than a year when the crisis broke, but already felt fully integrated. That was possible because KFC immersed Mother in the brand, inviting it along to its restaurant general manager conference during the pitch, and within the first three months of working together taking the Mother team to its HQ for tastings, having them bread chicken in the kitchens and going to franchisee meetings.
“It’s an incredible message for other clients, if you want agencies to be really helpful from the pitch onwards, let them in,” says Balarin.
Farren says seeing agencies as “real business partners” has been key to the success of the relationship. All its agencies are fully integrated and tasked with working with each other and the KFC marketing team, while KFC invests time and budget in the relationship, holding quarterly breakfasts with agency heads and agency recognition nights, for example.
What Mother managed to do is capture who we are as a business, our culture, and find a way to make sense of that so it is appealing to consumers.
Meghan Farren, KFC
Agencies also work to the same KPIs as Farren and her team. There is a performance-related bonus that reflects her own bonus and that of her team, as well as success measures based on sales, transactions, brand equity measures and key indicators such as quality of food, functionality and ease of use.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t give them access to everything because then they can give you a better answer. Don’t you want to find the agency who will give the best answer and be the most likely to have the best chemistry and best collaborative ways of working with you team? What you put in you get out.”
Even before the chicken crisis, KFC’s marketing strategy had shifted gear. Farren joined two-and-a-half years ago, and says she wanted to shake up how the industry was advertising.
The appointment of Mother certainly did that. The first ad took a bold approach, featuring a chicken strutting to the song ‘X Gon’ Give It To Ya’ by DMX. It certainly made KFC more recognisable, but also elicited a number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.
Mother went on to make ads that claimed KFC’s gravy was so good it could be used to make cocktails. And more recently it maintained that outlook with an ad that didn’t shy away from the delivery issues and saw the return of the Colonel to the UK for the first time in 40 years.
“The category in the UK is doing a lot of mirror advertising, holding a mirror up in front of the consumer, we were doing that for a while. That kind of advertising is hard to make distinctive and you have to be distinctive, people have to be able to recognise it’s you,” says Farren.
“What Mother managed to do is capture what we are as a business, our culture, and find a way to make sense of that so it is appealing to consumers. That’s why, all of a sudden, we have more confidence because we are being who we are.”
Modernising the KFC brand
Farren says that despite the challenging start to the year, KFC’s strategy hasn’t changed and is still focused on modernising the brand, and “trying to get the public to see how much good we have in the brand”. Then next year it will focus on getting people to understand that KFC foods is “fresh, handmade and still produced in the same way the colonel did it”.
That involves its comms, but also the wider customer experience. KFC has already introduced ordering kiosks and a delivery service through partnerships with Just Eat and Deliveroo, and is looking to launch a click-and-collect service and mobile ordering.
KFC has a relatively lean marketing team, especially compared to its rivals. It is made up of around 30 people who work across areas such as innovation; digital, which encompasses digital services as well as its apps, performance marketing and data teams; a brand engagement team; and a ‘calendar’ team responsible for deciding what and how KFC will sell and how it will position and price that.
Agencies are responsible for creative, almost none of which KFC does in-house. “We rely on agencies a lot because we have a super lean team. We own the direction, vision and strategy, with input and challenge from the agencies because it’s collaborative.”
Farren herself didn’t start out in marketing but in finance, working in banking on a trading desk before going into management consulting. It was here that she realised she wanted to work for a brand, not just “recommend things on PowerPoint” so she moved into marketing with a role at dessert brand Gü before heading to KFC.
“I did strategy and strategic marketing first, whereas most marketers start more in the execution part. Then I said I really want to work for a brand and do some stuff,” she explains.
“As a management consultant you have accountability to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, but you have no accountability for delivering results. [My background is] good as well because sometimes people who have only been in a linear path in more traditional companies have loads of frameworks, and vocabulary and words that don’t mean anything. If you don’t have that it forces you to be able to simplify and speak in a real way without the clutter. We are good at doing that in KFC, at stripping away any of the stuff that is just fluffy speak.”
Farren is keen for KFC to be seen as a career destination for marketers, as well as a brand that the best agencies want to work with. And its wins at Cannes certainly won’t hurt.
“The biggest impact [of the win] was on the people in the business. This will be for them.”