The fast food brand was chosen by a public vote and a panel of senior marketing executives, who described its marketing strategy as “bold and courageous” in the face of the pandemic.
At the Festival of Marketing this week, Marketing Week Editor Russell Parsons spoke to two of KFC’s top marketing decision makers – UK&I chief executive Paula MacKenzie and chief marketing officer Jack Hinchcliffe to discuss the journey that led to KFC receiving the brand of the year award. Together they discussed the decision to pull the brand’s famous slogan “Finger Lickin’ Good” at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, on the importance of a creative culture to succeed in business.
“The Fading Old Man”
The journey to reinvent a legacy company like KFC into the once again iconic brand we see today began many years ago, and long before the pandemic. Hinchcliffe reveals that, five years ago, KFC undertook enormous diagnostic research that deepened customer perception of the brand. The results were far from comforting, reflecting former CMO Meghan Farren’s fears that KFC had become the “old man fading away” of the fast food industry.
“We asked consumers to describe KFC as a person,” Hinchcliffe recalls, “and one of the most visceral images that came up was an old man…maybe he was a musician and was “He was cool when he was younger, but now he lives alone, alone. Although it was really fun, at the time, it was heartbreaking.
“…What we were able to diagnose was that we had a relevance issue. We actually went into the search thinking we had a communication problem…but it was a much bigger challenge than just communication.
As a result, the KFC team needed to transform in several ways. Not only did they have to change their advertising and communication strategy, but they also had to recreate the brand from the bottom up. This included “every facet” of the company’s brand image, down to the interior design of its restaurants and the products offered on its menu.
Consistency and commitment
In the years since this disappointing revelation, KFC has worked hard to reinvent its image and its proposition to consumers. Sometimes that has meant taking risks with its content, like developing a tongue-in-cheek tone of voice, or almost crossing the NSFW line with campaigns such as the memorable “FCK” bucket ad in the wake of the brand’s distribution crisis. in 2018.
“There’s a lot to be said for consistency and commitment. The reason we’ve been able to realize the scale of the transformation we have is because we’ve been incredibly consistent in our commitment to strategy. Naturally, every year we refresh and there will be elements that we will need to evolve… but overall this diagnosis remains true and [has] lasted us five years.
On KFC’s bold and carefully crafted tone of voice, Parsons asks the pair how the brand is able to gauge what it can do from a marketing perspective.
“The first thing I would say is that we’re not always quite right,” Hinchcliffe admits, “So we learn as much by doing as we learn from guidelines and restrictions. Second, we’re really aware that all of our agency partners and everyone in the organization have real clarity about who we are and are empowered to make the right judgments about it.
MacKenzie, meanwhile, outlines a list of three key questions she always asks about everything from creative elements to any other proposal that comes her way.
- Is it strategic?
- Is it definitely KFC?
- Will it make us famous?
“Not everything has to make us famous…” she explains, “But the moment you get three ticks, you know you’re onto something pretty special.”
Make tough decisions
One of the most pivotal moments and toughest decisions in KFC’s marketing journey to date was removing the “finger licking” slogan from its activations during the pandemic.
It came just after the brand launched a new campaign in February 2020, intended to give “meaning” to the slogan, which deliberately showed happy customers licking their fingers while enjoying their meal.
“I remember at the launch party someone said, ‘Do you think Covid is going to have an impact on this campaign?’ later… we made the decision to withdraw it.
Initially, this decision was about acting responsibly in the global climate, but it was also an opportunity to be even more creative. In August, the brand launched an OOH campaign that pixelated the slogan of its ads and asked customers and influencers on social media to come up with fun alternatives. KFC has even started borrowing slogans from other brands, “much to the dismay of our legal team”, jokes Hinchcliffe.
Eventually, the choice was made to reincorporate “finger-lickin’ good” into its marketing material this year in a light and cheerful campaign about Barry White’s You’re The First, My Last, My Everything.
“[It] was a celebration of our fans and the tremendous efforts they put into the brand, and it was just a really natural and instinctive way for us to weave in the return of “finger-licking good”.
Measuring the effectiveness of creativity
Behind all these crucial decisions lies a pool of talent, made up of internal teams and external agencies. Creativity is a culture that KFC has fostered behind the scenes, and its award-winning production reflects this.
“First and foremost, it’s about making sure people are empowered and able to take risks, because fear is the biggest bucket of water you can pour on creativity…that will never produce the best results.” Hinchcliffe explains.
MacKenzie adds, “The best innovative results…happen when many people touch it…If you take something as pure genius as the FCK Bucket, it wasn’t just one person…it was so many people.” seriously talented people who were refining, touching, ideating, drawing on the ideas of others.
Measuring the success of this creativity can often be difficult, especially when launching a marketing campaign for the first time. Most of the time, says Hinchcliffe, metrics are based on business outcomes, the data of which can only be collected and reviewed over a substantial period of time. But there are other ways, during the development process, that the team is able to spot potential success.
“We obviously put a lot of rigor into our strategy, and then we’ll explore and evaluate some creative territory, and make sure we test the ideas that we’re acting on,” says Hinchcliffe, “…One of my observations over the last few years , in fact, a lot of our best work at KFC has been under pressure, as we acted on very short deadlines…I think it just goes to show that that collaboration and instinct is just as much, if not is more important than analysis, rigor and process.
Lessons from the pandemic
Finally, Parsons asks what key lessons the pandemic has taught KFC.
“One is our agility,” says MacKenzie, “We’re a very autonomous and decentralized business unit, we can literally react quickly under pressure, in a crisis situation. You saw that in 2018 with the distribution crisis, you saw that again in 2020/2021 with the global pandemic…
“[Secondly]…is a realization,” she concludes, “We are not an ego-driven organization… We just ‘what’s the best thing we can do for the KFC team right now, for this brand that we love?’ ”
You can buy a ticket to attend all sessions of the Festival of Marketing – live and on demand – here.