• Mark Hallander

Take-aways from KFC's masterclass in crisis communication

In 2018, a flaw in the KFC logistics system made the popular fast-food chain run out of chicken. More than 750 restaurants had to close within 24 hours, and KFC was sent into a crisis. Their response? Turning the logo into a swear word. In the following, I will go through this master class example of cleaver and brave crisis communication.

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A chicken restaurant without chicken

Impressive as it is, the failure to deliver chicken came down to an implementation error in the logistics system, which meant that KFC's supplier could not deliver enough chicken to restaurants in the UK and Ireland. Shortly thereafter, the regional and local newspapers picked up the news and after 24 hours it became global news: More than 750 restaurants were now closed, as they had run out of their main product.


Consumers found it hysterical and on social media, chicken puns ran loose. On top of the logistic business challenge, KFC had to manage several stories in the media of how they were to get chicken back in production, how to pay employees, etc., and their PR office took half a year of inquiries in 24 hours. While all ad campaigns were put on hold, part of the marketing team was helping out in distribution centers – making information flow to franchisers.


Business as usual was gone, and KFC had to form an apology, quickly.


A bold creative response

KFC then turned to their agency, Mother, with whom they had only worked with less than a year. The agency team locked themselves into a war room to brainstorm on how to properly respond. They knew that KFC needed to apologize immediately, but the task was to find the right kind of apology for an odd situation like this.


The insight for the creative solution was based on how we react as human beings. What is a very common human reaction when you mess up? You say “fuck” to yourself and then go apologize to the person you hurt. Therefore, Mother remade the logo so it said “FCK” with copy underneath that explained how KFC was sorry and in the process of fixing the issue.


Meg Farren, KFC’s CMO of the UK and Ireland, wasn't too keen on the idea of remaking the logo and make it into a swear word. In a time of crisis, they were not ready to make a bold, creative statement, but Mother was stubborn and got their message through. Formulated in a print ad, the apology was very well-received by customers in the market.


But why was the response such a huge success?

With this clever piece of crisis communication, KFC managed to rapidly salvage its reputation with creativity, humility, and self-effacing humor.


A few key takeaways from their process:


1) Externally, the copy of the ad showed who KFC was as human beings and it was different than just casting blame on logistics. It is human to make mistakes and the brand is only as powerful as the people that behave on behalf of the brand. And KFC apologized as they meant it. As a statement, this was a very powerful detail in KFC's crisis communication.


2) Internally, the communication had lots of positives too. The main one being that the employees - who were the first to encounter angry customers, who couldn't buy chicken - felt both very appreciated and as if the marketing department had their backs, which is equally powerful.


3) Generally, it is the fewest that experience a crisis like KFC's. However, if you are unlucky enough to stand in a crisis that demands a response, just remember that the consumer operates in a different context than yourself. They do not know how bad it is one the other side and their life will go on.


If you want to read more about crisis communication, this blog post dives into proactive issue management and crisis response strategies.