Why the fat’s in the fire for KFC

1-KFCGrilledChicken-051109“We had very big projections numbers on this, but not in our wildest imagination could we believe the response we’ve gotten…But, in fact, it’s been so big, it’s been overwhelming.”

Who’s this speaking? Some frightened executive at Hoover, perhaps, after its infamous promotion went so wrong? Well, not far off. It’s US KFC president Roger Eaton fessing up to one of the worst marketing disasters in years on the Oprah Winfrey show.

Eaton is a very experienced operator. Over 13 years, he’s handled numerous senior marketing and operational roles at Yum Restaurants, which owns KFC. KFC itself is a blue-chip retailer with turnover of about $5.3bn in the States and something like 5,300 franchises. As a marketing operation, they don’t come much more professional than that.

So, how has KFC managed – in a matter of days – to seriously alienate three of its main constituencies, consumers, the media and its franchisees?

Like many of these things, each individual step of the operation looked well thought-out, sensible even. It was the overall contingency planning that was abysmal.

KFC has a pressing problem – its core product, fried chicken, isn’t very healthy. Enter KFC grilled chicken, a constructive alternative. Sounds all right, until you remember the “F” in the middle of the brand name, and hear that the creative concept was “Unthink KFC”. 

But all this was a mooncast shadow compared with what came next. Someone had the bright idea of promoting two pieces of the new product plus a biscuit free on the Oprah Winfrey show, provided viewers downloaded a coupon within two days. Guess what? The offer was brilliantly successful and jet-propelled the retailer to the number one topic on Twitter.

And, guess what again? The company couldn’t fulfil the offer and rapidly had to revoke it . “Riots” were reported in New York KFC outlets. Consumers complained about rude service from franchisees who were caught on the hop, and the media took pot shots at a PR team (led by, would you believe it, someone called Schalow) that wasn’t up to the job.

So, KFC has handed out 4 million free meals in two days and a lot of free Pepsi to the 6 million or so people who couldn’t participate. And what it got back was a bloody nose.

Give him credit though. When the chips were down, Eaton dealt with the crisis manfully. He didn’t hide under his office desk (see Hoover). He took control immediately things went disastrously wrong and fronted the TV apology personally, on the very programme that had proved his nemesis.

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