Colonel Ritson: KFC’s marketers turned a chicken crisis into a brand triumph


The KFC chicken crisis caused by DHL’s delivery failures could have been disastrous, but a rapid strategic response has ensured the brand will benefit long-term from increased awareness and a boost in consumer demand.

What’s in three little letters? Well the short answer is that they may spell out the best bit of marketing of 2018.

In November 2017, when logistics company DHL won the KFC account, it promised to “rewrite the rule book” and “set a new benchmark” for delivering chicken. Having finally taken over the account earlier this month it appears both objectives have been achieved, but perhaps not in the manner KFC or its new partner might have hoped.

It quickly became apparent that DHL was catastrophically ill-prepared to serve its new client. Chicken from KFC’s suppliers began to pile up on the side of the road and, with literally nothing to cook or sell, most of the chain’s 870 British outlets were forced to close their doors.

Cue a series of troubling street-level interviews in which people who clearly did not need any more fried chicken complained bitterly about being unable to get their buckets of KFC. Many were so bereft they resorted to calling 999 to fix the ’emergency’ and several police forces took to social media to demand that residents stop calling them about the situation.

Things are gradually improving. Over the weekend more than 90% of KFC’s restaurants were open again, albeit with a limited menu and shorter hours. It is usually around this point that the recriminations begin and armchair marketing experts start their wild overestimations of the ‘brand damage’ that the crisis has done to the company’s reputation. Someone mentions Gerald Ratner and everyone bangs on about reputations needing decades to build and days to destroy.

But it’s already apparent that KFC is not only avoiding any perceptual damage to its reputation; the brand might actually emerge from the chicken crisis in better shape than before they went into it.

Most of the credit for this rather remarkable feat of crisis management can be given to Meghan Farren, KFC’s cool-headed UK CMO, and her agency of record, Mother. That was the team behind last Friday’s masterstroke of taking out a full-page ad in both The Sun and Metro newspapers, containing the now infamous reworking of KFC into FCK and a short but pithy apology.

The ad has garnered massive plaudits, not just from consumers but from across the marketing community, which, for once, appears to be united in praise for the approach. It has now reached as far afield as the US, Australia and Japan, where the ad continues to draw attention and generate appreciative responses.

Indeed, the reaction has been so effusive for what is, after all, nothing more than an anagram of the company’s three-letter logo that it prompts the question whether it is really worthy of all the fuss?

Well, to use another three-letter response: yes.

Achieving instant brand salience

The strategic and tactical implications of this simple ad spell out an extremely impressive bit of marketing by KFC that ticks many different boxes. First, this is a brilliant example of what I would call ‘code play’ and what the Ehrenberg Bass Institute would refer to as the use of ‘distinctive assets’.

Too many companies create advertising and marketing material that passes the target consumer by because it literally does not look like it comes from the brand. Constantly changing creative, overly clever executions, arrogant agencies trying to stamp their signature across the work – everything adds up to ensure that most advertising is a constantly changing carousel of confusion that is usually ignored by the customer.

If it’s not ignored and consumers do remember the execution, they usually have no idea which brand is behind it. Data from Ehrenberg Bass suggests that around 86% of all ads are either ignored completely or, if noticed, unconnected to the brand sponsoring the message. Almost nine out of 10 ads are, literally, a waste of money.

The FCK response could not be more different. It’s the central code of KFC – its logo – and by playing with it to make such a small yet meaningful change the company can grab attention and still associate the ad immediately with its brand too.

KFC chicken crisis Mark Ritson

Next, look at the media strategy. In an era when news media has managed to stop the rot in readership but is struggling to get ad agencies and clients to consider it as a formidable advertising medium, here is evidence of just how well it stacks up against the rest. Data suggests that news media advertising remains a superior medium for trust, for driving the public agenda, and gaining and then holding target consumers’ attention – all things that advertisers should be looking for in the age of programmatic and Facebook. The FCK ad benefits from all of the above.

Yes, the ad went social very quickly after the initial print run appeared on Friday and that should not be discounted – most people saw this ad on Twitter or Facebook and not in print. But this organic exposure would have been impossible without the initial media context, content authority and impact of news media advertising.

That said, this does not mean that so-called ‘traditional’ media is back and so-called ‘digital’ media is in decline. Such simple dichotomous approaches are rapidly becoming old-hat. KFC was quick with its digital media too, and created a landing page on its website that allowed consumers to get more information on the issue and ascertain which local KFC restaurants were open for business.

It’s a simple example of something most marketers have forgotten. In all the calls for a digital-first approach and the subsequent responses to defend traditional media, most marketers miss the bigger integrated point. You should use whatever tools help get the job done, irrespective of how they are labelled. As KFC nobly illustrate with FCK, a blend of mass-marketed news media followed by more targeted geo-located digital messages can provide important synergies for a well-structured campaign.

From a client point of view, you’re a moron if you only consider digital media. You’re a moron if you think traditional media is always superior to digital. Silos stop campaigns from achieving their optimal impact and the synergy of long-term mass media combined with shorter, targeted digital fare can be a beautiful thing to behold.

By making such a small yet meaningful change to its logo, the company can grab attention and still associate the ad immediately with its brand too.

That simple but practical approach has been equally well applied to the tone and style of KFC’s message. If I encounter one more brand taking a principled, purpose-led approach to their ‘dialogue with consumers’ I am going to throw all my drumsticks out of my bucket.

Beer brands want to solve global warming, online accommodation brands want to stand up against homophobia, coffee brands want to build a community for you. On and on it goes. There’s nothing wrong with these causes but the brands and their vaunted tone of voice and righteous bullshit are a trend for the worse. You’re just a beer, or a place to stay for the weekend; you’re not a big part of the consumer’s life.

KFC gets this message. It has not gone overboard with apologies and handwringing and a reminder that it is here to fix the world. This is a brand speaking in a voice this is exactly in line with brand positioning and with the audience it is targeting. It should not be something we need to praise, but in a marketing world surrounded by the pompous indulgences of marketers who want to do anything other than promote their brands, a simple message that ‘we FCKed up’ has incredible cut-through and deserves the plaudits.

The public emphasis on KFC’s marketing prowess in pulling off this audacious saving tackle also serves an important corporate purpose of covering over the almighty cock-up that the company initially made with its logistics switchover. Granted, most of the blame can be laid at DHL’s door, but it’s doubly handy to have everyone complimenting your marketing and PR skills to escape a current crisis when they could be analysing exactly how you managed to get into this state in the first place.

That’s especially important when you run (and are run by) an independent network. Only around 50 of KFC’s 870 stores are company-owned; the rest are run by franchisees.

A word on these wonderful people: I have spoken at many conferences for brands that are run by franchise partners and they are honestly, without question, the most miserable fuckers on the planet. I’ve talked at a conference where a franchised brand had increased its profits by 28% in one year and the first question during the CEO’s Q&A was why things had slowed down over the past six months.

Nothing is ever good enough for a franchise owner. Nothing.

Having the world’s media praise your brand as being well run will not make the many franchisees of KFC happy about being closed for the past two weeks. As we speak they are more than likely forming a militia of angry owners, picking up their burning torches and marching on KFC’s Woking HQ. But the marketing praise has probably softened their ire just a little, and that – along with the likely lost income payments from DHL – will probably do enough to keep them relatively unhappy (their normal state) rather than furious and reaching for the pitchforks.

Chicken crisis will boost long-term demand

To be totally honest, they would do well to sit on their hands and enjoy the moment. This is a huge mess but it will almost certainly leave KFC commercially better off in the long run.

First, you have the acres of brand awareness that the crisis is generating on a daily basis. For a low-involvement fast food brand like KFC, that kind of saliency turns into revenue very fast and very significantly.

Next, look at the source of the problem. None of this was actually KFC’s direct fault and the reason that logistics are so important to its success is that, as the brand has reminded us repeatedly this week, it relies on daily supplies of fresh chicken to make its meals. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea KFC used fresh rather than frozen food for its meals. But I know now. And so does the rest of the UK. What price that brand association?

Finally, never underestimate the value of what my Italian friends call ‘privazione’ – privation, the value of loss. Not being able to get something that you probably did not actually want but now really want because you have been prevented from having it is at the heart of a lot of consumer behaviour (plus a significant amount of extremely good sex with ex-lovers – but I digress).

All over the country, British consumers have been told repeatedly that they cannot get any KFC because their local restaurant is closed. The paradoxical result of this mediated deprivation is that there will be a mighty surge in demand for KFC in the weeks to come that will, I bet, more than make up for the two-week shortfall currently occurring.

Finally, and not insubstantially, this tells you a lot about how good KFC and its holding company Yum Brands are at marketing. You might think that anyone could come up with an ad that basically says ‘fuck’ in your corporate colours. But consider all the things that need to be in place to do this and it becomes apparent just how proficient the KFC team is.

First, you must understand the tone of voice of KFC and be prepared to walk the path of differentiation. Next, you have to avoid all the dreary crisis management experts who want you to follow the same old generic manual from 1975. You also need to be able to have autonomy from your US parent company who – almost certainly – would have blocked even the suggestion of saying ‘fuck’ in a full-page ad, had they been informed.

Then there is the speed issue. To get all this done in a few days, from concept to media buy, shows you that food is not the only thing that is fast at KFC. I know companies that would still be having meetings about the correct response to this issue at Christmas; the team at KFC was done in a few short days.

Like marketing commandos, they got in, they did their work, they got out. And now they are smoking cigars in their Woking HQ (while presumably waiting for their chickens to arrive).

This article first appeared in

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Mark Ritson

Professor Mark Ritson is an internationally renowned marketing consultant and teaches marketing and brand management on MBA programs at London Business School, MIT Sloan, the University of Minnesota, Singapore Management University and Melbourne Business School.

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