KFC PR: Finger-Lickin’ Good

When you hear the words ‘chicken’ and ‘fast food,’ one brand likely springs to mind. We’re talking, of course, about Kentucky Fried Chicken now known as KFC.

Thanks to its secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices, and being one of the first fast food brands to embrace restaurant franchising, KFC exploded from humble origins in the 1930s to become one of the world’s biggest fast food companies.

But things haven’t always been so rosy for the brand. For a time, it looked like they might be on the way out entirely.

Thanks to the success of numerous KFC public relations campaigns – often hilarious, sometimes poignant, but always inventive and attention-grabbing – the brand is stronger than ever and has established itself as a master at playing to the public.

Fast food goes slow

However, during the 2010s, KFC faced a serious image crisis. Consumers and journalists saw the company as a relic of the past, like an ‘old man, perhaps a former musician, who was once cool but now lives alone’.

Determined to shake off their stale image, the brand took a bold new direction with their PR in 2016. The guiding principle was relevance. The KFC PR team wanted the brand to feel youthful and energetic.

No expense was spared in doing it either. Everything about the brand, from the menu to their approach to communications, was overhauled.

Thankfully, their efforts paid off. In October 2021, they were named Marketing Week’s brand of the year. At the same time, they were the second biggest dining brand in the UK, according to YouGov.

KFC even became the most popular kind of fast food for people in the UK to recreate at home.

The best way to understand how a brand like KFC can make a comeback like this is to examine how they act under pressure. You can have the best PR plans in the world, but if you can’t handle ‘the heat in the kitchen’, you won’t last long.

To that end, let’s look at one of KFC’s worst-ever PR crises and how the brand emerged stronger.

The KFC FCK bucket: a clucking PR nightmare

If your business serves fried chicken day in, day out, it goes without saying, you don’t want to run out of chicken. But this is exactly what happened to KFC in 2018.

Poultry lovers across the UK were left distraught as more than 600 outlets were forced to close due to a shortage of chicken. Hangry fans flocked to Twitter to complain. Some were so panicked they called the police, prompting a stern warning from Scotland Yard.

The KFC PR team acted quickly, issuing a statement on social media, explaining that the closures were a result of ‘teething problems’ with their new delivery partner, DHL.

They also made a public apology in the form of two full-page ads in The Sun and Metro, showing an empty bargain bucket with the company’s logo rearranged to read ‘FCK’, and a statement saying: ‘A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal. Huge apologies to our customers, especially those who travelled out of their way to find that we were closed’.

Turning the KFC PR nightmare into the world’s greatest apology

Thankfully, the cheeky ad hit the right note. It generated over 700 pieces of positive press, won KFC a handful of awards and won customers over. One Twitter user said ‘After this, how could you not forgive them? #kfc #fck’. Another called it a ‘brilliant advert’, adding that ‘sometimes you have to use some humour to say sorry.’

By acting quickly, openly, and getting the tone of the apology right, KFC pulled themselves back from the brink of disaster.

Crisis management in action

There are three key reasons why KFC’s response was so successful. Namely the language, tone, and timing.

Let’s look at them in more detail.

1. Language

Firstly, the opening words in the KFC FCK bucket ad were ‘we’re sorry’. It would have been easy to push the blame onto their new supplier, but KFC took full responsibility for the issue.

With the words ‘a chicken restaurant without any chicken’, they showed that they understood the irony of the situation, making them relatable to the average consumer.

2. Tone

A chicken shortage is annoying, but not life-threatening. It wasn’t going to affect climate change or world peace.

The response from the KFC PR team reflected this. It struck the right balance between humility and cheekiness, without being offensive.

The apology also signed off with ‘endless thanks’ to the KFC staff working to fix the problem. It’s vital to acknowledge your staff during a crisis. It’ll keep them on your side, and make it clear to the public that the problem doesn’t lie with your workers.

3. Timing

In PR, you have to strike when the griddle is hot. The KFC PR team’s response was swift and decisive. The KFC FCK bucket was plastered over the nation’s newspapers immediately, which let KFC get ahead of the story and keep it under control. By admitting fault early, it showed the brand wasn’t hoping the problem would disappear.

KFC chicken shortage part 2

Bucket of KFC chicken and fries

In 2021, KFC was in the unenviable position of almost running out of chicken once more. This time, it was due to a global supply chain crisis caused by the pandemic.

In response, the quick-thinking brand immediately pulled its planned advertising campaign, knowing it would bring more attention than their stocks could handle.

Turning away customers is a bold and risky approach to problem-solving. But it showed KFC is an agile brand that’s willing to do whatever it takes to fix their issues.

The Colonel: KFC and the power of authenticity

We’ve seen how KFC expertly handles a PR crisis. But brands aren’t doing damage-control day in and day out (or shouldn’t be, anyway). To truly understand KFC’s PR success, you have to look at their wider marketing strategy.

The focal point of the entire KFC brand is their founder. So let’s examine that in detail.

KFC’s public image would be vastly different and less memorable, without ‘Colonel’ Harland Sanders. His face, moustache and vintage white suit have appeared on KFC products for decades, undergoing a series of redesigns in recent years to keep up with the times.

This approach is in stark contrast to many brands. Nobody knows the names of the people who started McDonald’s. But KFC has videos and web pages dedicated to Harland’s life story.

It helps that it’s a good one. Early in his career, for instance, Harland gunned down a business rival after a dispute got heated. (He got off on a self-defence verdict).

More importantly, Harland represents a classic rags-to-riches story. After a life of odd jobs, including an insurance salesman and a filling station operator, he found success in fast food in his late 60s.

Heritage marketing

In contrast to the squeaky-clean stories most brands tell, KFC put the warts-n’-all background of their founder front-and-centre, which adds authenticity to the brand. As Forbes notes, this is something consumers value more than ever.

The focus on Sanders also ties into ‘heritage marketing’: the idea that you can play up your brand’s history to build people’s trust in you.

Harland’s life hearkens back to the rustic American South; something many people find nostalgic.

It’s similar to how soft drinks brand, Coca-Cola, have used their hundred-year history to sell themselves. Read more: Coca-Cola PR Magic: How to Stay on Top for Over a 100 Years.

As we’ve seen, KFC is adept at using their history to make them seem authentic and relatable. But at the same time, they stay relevant by moving with the times.

Next, we’ll explore how KFC has achieved this by attaching itself to a surprising niche: gaming.

Playing the PR game: how KFC targets younger generations

Did you know that in 2019, KFC released an anime-inspired video-game where you could date Colonel Sanders?

The idea may be off-the-wall, and it may be tempting to dismiss it as one of the weirder KFC PR stunts, where being ridiculous is the entire point. After all, a fast food chain dating simulator makes for great clickbait headlines and trending Twitter tags.

But there was more to it than that. As it turns out, the dating game wasn’t an isolated incident. In 2020, KFC released their own gaming console, along with a heater for warming up fried chicken. Mike Fahey, a writer on video games and fast food, has explained that this push towards attracting gamers is part of a larger strategy. Basically, the idea is that ‘gamers eat fast food’ and are ‘so wrapped up in playing, we need to grab and go’.

More importantly, though, it makes good business sense.

Once the niche domain of nerds, gaming is now bigger than Hollywood. According to Statista, 60% of people in the UK over the age of 16 have played games, rising to over 90% for under-24s. With numbers like this, KFC would be foolish to ignore the gaming market.

The moral of the story? You never know where your next audience is, so don’t count anything out.

Once a brand is established, it tends to get set in its ways. It’s hard to break out and do something truly original, but that’s exactly the mindset needed to do generate great PR. While your brand might not appeal to teenage gamers, thinking outside the box can reinvigorate your business when it needs it most.

A family-sized bucket of other genius KFC PR moves

While the FCK bucket made the most noise, KFC has put out one great idea after another.

Here’s a quick round-up of the best KFC PR moves and what makes them so good.

In 2021, a Spanish KFC campaign offered to give free chicken to fans who tried to replicate their secret blend of herbs and spices. Other brands might’ve seen this as an infringement on their intellectual property, but KFC saw it as a meaningful way to reward customers for their loyalty.

The dating game and the KFC FCK bucket showed KFC isn’t a brand you can accuse of taking itself too seriously. Neither is their Mother’s Day campaign from 2019, which featured an 80s pastiche of a Chippendales performance, called – groan – ‘Chickendales’.

Memorable PR stunts like these are a great way to connect with audiences. Why? People instinctively ignore most marketing, but if you can make them laugh, you’ve got your foot in the door. And comedy is even more powerful when the world is going through a rough patch. As one marketing veteran has said, nobody wants ad breaks ‘filled with reminders that life is tough‘.

Of course, going too far with humour and light-heartedness can also backfire. KFC found this out in 2021, when they sent the following rejection letter to a candidate who applied for a job at their Thinford store.

‘Hi Sophie, thank you for your application to Team KFC. ‘We’re cluckin’ delighted you’re keen to join our flock, however at this moment in time your skills aren’t the secret recipe the Colonel is looking for. But we’d love to hear from you again when you have some more experience under your wing, so please give us a cluck if you would like to apply in the future. Best wishes, Team KFC.’

The letter went viral for all the wrong reasons. People saw their response as ‘cringeworthy’ and insincere.

While this incident didn’t lead to a PR crisis, it went to show that even the best brands can make bad judgement calls.

KFC on Google maps

To round things off, let’s jump back to the early 2000s to see what might be one of the most impressive KFC PR stunts ever.

If you checked Google Maps anytime in 2006, you would’ve found the serene face of Colonel Sanders staring back up at you.

Besides showing how closely tied Sanders’ face is with KFC, what really makes this stunt pop is its scale. The image was apparently visible from space. It was a ‘spacevertisment’.

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