Why KFC's brand was on a 'dying planet' and how it escaped

Fast-food brand found plan to communicate freshly hand-breaded chicken more complicated than expected for more than one reason.

KFC: 'Chicken town' featured various imitators
KFC: 'Chicken town' featured various imitators

KFC found itself in the challenging position of knowing exactly which messages would improve the perception of its food and therefore its brand – but struggling to find an effective way to get those ideas across in a TV ad.

That is according to Jack Hinchliffe, marketing director at KFC UK and Ireland, who was speaking at Digital Cinema Media's Cinema Media Showcase about the process of strategic and creative development that led to the brand’s recent cinema campaign, which lures viewers into thinking the film they are there to see has begun.

Three years ago, Hinchliffe said – before KFC appointed Mother as its creative agency in March 2017 – it was in a difficult environment, under pressure on the one hand from casual dining chains such as Nando’s and Wagamama that were offering "better value than ever before", and on the other from the boom in food delivery.

KFC also wasn’t where its marketing team wanted it to be, he said, for several reasons that became apparent in research. "We found out we were viewed as a big American corporation," he said, "and there isn’t a lot of trust for those."

In one particularly vivid comparison made by consumers, KFC was compared to "an old man stuck in the past, harking back to better days – maybe an alcoholic down on his luck".

Consumers were also asked to use metaphors to talk about the fast-food category as a whole. "When they were describing it as a planet or a world, everyone went to Wall-E: a dying planet full of rubbish that’s brown, that’s full of decay," Hinchliffe said. In contrast, the world of food as a whole was "a green, lush world, kind of like California, with people spontaneously breaking into yoga poses".

Eww, get your hands off my food

The research did reveal a clear path to improving perceptions of the brand; KFC needed to tackle "anxiety that it’s not real food", Hinchliffe explained. This thinking was first seen in Mother’s debut spot, "The whole chicken", in July 2017.

As well as the quality of its chicken, the brand also wanted to increase awareness of its process: fresh chicken is delivered to the restaurants, where it is breaded by trained cooks.

"The true story about our food genuinely makes people feel differently about the food, and that makes them feel differently about the brand," Hinchliffe told the audience. "This idea of fresh hand-breaded chicken we knew was something that could be a genuinely meaningful difference for us."

But telling this story turned out to be easier said than done. "What we found is that those anxieties aren’t linear," he said – this emotional response to the brand can’t be resolved through rational messaging, no matter how provocative or interesting or hard-hitting that is.

"Although 'handmade' does communicate great taste and says ‘fresh’, it also provokes some things that are less helpful," Hinchcliffe continuerd. For example, it was hard to connect images of raw chicken to taste; and while people like the idea of freshly prepared food, they paradoxically don’t like the thought of it being touched. 

And then there was an even bigger obstacle: "They’re just not that interested."

Time to talk chicken shops

As KFC and its agencies began to understand these challenges, they took the decision to "take that rational message and turn it into something more emotional, entertaining and more connected to cultural insight," Hinchliffe explained. "We went back and reframed our brief and went back to taste."

This led to "Chicken town", the spot from March that featured images of KFC-imitating chicken shops with names such as Mississippi Fried Chicken. 

"Chicken shops on the high street – everyone knows about them, but it’s not something brands tend to talk about," he added. "It’s a much more human way of communicating."

The brand’s latest work is its series of cinematically themed spots that run after "Chicken town" and spoof fan-made recreations of hit movies.

The cinema environment, according to Hinchliffe, "is a bubble": "The more we spoke to our media partners and DCM, we began to understand there was an opportunity for us to tap into the fact that people respond different to advertising in a cinema environment.

"What became clear is we had the chance to do something quite different – why not do something that will take the idea further that’s more entertaining, create stronger memory structures and do something the audience will respond to?"

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