These are the days marketers dread: an epic failure at the heart of your customer experience, which not only costs you money in the short-term but has the potential to damage your brand in the long-term.
Of course, the best advice is to avoid such mishaps in the first place, but once disaster strikes, the acid test becomes how you deal with it. In this instance, the early signs are that KFC is coping relatively well.
For starters, the very fact that the failure is so fundamental ironically makes it more likely to be addressed and less likely that customers will feel it is likely to be repeated.
I mean, we’ve all got to assume that KFC and its partners will fix such a basic – but extreme – problem in the supply chain and never allow it to happen again, right?
So, while the initial commercial hit will come as a savage blow, it should surely just be a one-off. The scandals that really wreak long-term havoc are the ones that uncover systemic bad practices, where the company has actively contributed to its own downfall – oil slicks, fraudulent emissions tests, data breaches, animal cruelty, discrimination and so on. In these cases, customers (and other stakeholders) are understandably suspicious about whether the guilty party really wishes to change – whereas in the case of KFC, even the most hardened cynic will appreciate that the company will be working round the clock to get back on track.
In addition, KFC seems to have struck the right tone in its communications. Yes, they’ve held their hands up and apologised profusely – but they’ve also maintained some levity, in keeping with the somewhat farcical nature of their mistake ("The chicken crossed the road, just not to our restaurants").
This won’t have been easy, given the extraordinary frustration they must be feeling right now, but is the right call: it suggests confidence and is true to their brand in a way that a robotic, corporate statement wouldn’t be. They’ve even managed to reinforce their quality credentials, without it feeling too forced: they say they have taken the extreme measures because "we won’t compromise on quality". Again, this is in marked contrast to many organisations, whose tone-deaf communications actually make an initial problem worse (Oxfam, being a recent case in point).
On a broader note, it’s interesting that this disaster has struck at a time when marketers are increasingly talking about trust again. I’d argue that consumers will view this incident as a genuine cock-up, rather than a fundamental breach of trust (as long as the operational issues are dealt with decisively, obviously).
Restaurant owners and staff are another matter though. KFC is effectively a franchise business and there is always a natural tension with head office in such organisations. I reckon the company’s biggest problem will be repairing the trust with these crucial stakeholders, some of whom will have lost significant sums of money.
So perhaps the most telling part of the statement is actually the: "Shout out to our restaurant teams who are working flat out to get us back up and running again." That’s a good start but there will no doubt need to be many further words and actions of reassurance to this audience in the months ahead.
Andy Nairn is founding partner of Lucky Generals. Follow him on Twitter at @andynairn.