What we can learn from the recent KFC debacle in Britain

It’s a classic job interview interrogation technique: “Describe your biggest achievement!” Swiftly followed by “Tell us about your biggest mistake…” What do you say? How honest and transparent should you be?

Experts say that sharing vulnerability will enhance our credibility as leaders.

But putting it into practice can be more challenging. For example, I’m quite happy to list out the calamities I’ve been involved with. However, it’s much harder to admit that my character flaws or shortcomings caused the debacle.

Many years ago, the marketing team I was responsible for had a sideline promoting concerts and events. Once we booked a few shows with dance act “Technotronic,” hot on the heels of their big hit “Pump Up the Jam,” which hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Unbeknownst to us, there was more than one group of people touring as “Technotronic.” Alas, the people we booked weren’t the singers responsible for “Pump Up the Jam.” The few people who bothered to buy tickets weren’t pleased, leaving us to placate disgruntled dance fans. It’s easy to look back and laugh at this, but it’s much harder to confess that my personal lack of attention to detail and care around the contract contributed to the problem.

Talk about failing fast. Moving on quickly? It’s taken me 20 years to admit this.

Humility is for brands as well as people

If great marketing leaders need to show vulnerability, how should the brands we are responsible for behave? What should brands do when mistakes are made?

KFC has just offered us a salutary lesson. The global fried chicken chain recently altered UK distribution arrangements, and these changes in the supply chain resulted in fresh chicken failing to reach many stores. This led to the temporary closure of over half of their outlets. What follows is a communications master class. A perfect blend of context and content.

With humility, empathy and humor, along with a landing page experience where customers can check the status of their own local restaurant, the messaging is completely consistent with the brand. KFC manages to achieve the impossible, enabling the everyday consumer to side with the big corporation in their hour of need.

Logan Harrington, PR and social media manager of Quadrant2Design, analyzed KFC’s communication skills in a blog post from which I have extracted these crisis communications tips:

  1.  Act fast. ‘Fess up quickly.
  2.  Get all your internal team on message, factually and tonally.
  3. Communicate constantly and honestly.
  4. Don’t blame anyone. Least of all your own people. They’re your best bet to get out of the mess you created.

KFC’s contextual intelligence: a great brand understanding the absurdity of the situation it created. A fried chicken store without chicken. They used a human touch to deftly navigate the storm.

It’s this contextual intelligence that our brands and ourselves alike should emulate. This means ensuring you have and show a simple, realistic understanding of your place in the world and the place you occupy in people’s lives. KFC’s customers may miss their favorite fast food restaurant, but they’re not going to starve.

Unfortunately, a KFC without chicken is the least of most people’s worries. Most of us marketing folk are not saving lives. We’re just adding a little extra choice, convenience or fun to this thing we call life. Being human means that we all occasionally mess up. And while we try to fail faster, it will be our humanity that enables us to pick up quickly and leave the world a better place.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Malcolm Cox is CMO of Grapeshot, a role he took on after gaining experience in the media, music and agency worlds. Malcolm spent thirteen years working with music and media company Emap, where he created the Magic brand and launched Kiss — both radio stations — and reinvigorated weekly music magazine Kerrang! After Emap, Malcolm founded brand activation agency Naked Lunch. Here he created award-winning work for Sony, Nokia, Kickers, IKEA and Nike, staying on at the Naked Group as a director after selling the agency in 2008.

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