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By Katie Deighton, Senior Reporter

June 27, 2018 | 9 min read

The Cannes-winning FCK ad from KFC and Mother is more than a clever apology for a fast food chain in crisis: it’s testament to the power of a strong brand/agency relationship.

When news of KFC’s chicken shortage first hit its head office, it wasn’t a crisis. The fast food brand had recently switched its delivery contract to DHL, which subsequently encountered ‘operational issues’ just a week into the job. The brand initially believed these were just “teething problems”, according to chief marketing officer, Meghan Farren. But as chicken failed to arrive at restaurants and franchises up and down the country were forced to shut their doors, it became evident a much bigger situation was on KFC’s hands.

Not aware she was entering into crisis mode, Farren instructed her team to stop everything. In-house marketers were preparing campaigns that wouldn’t be able to run without a product – chicken – to sell, and were redeployed to an area of the business they were likely never expecting to encounter.

“I had a third of the marketing team literally at the distribution centre in Rugby working in fridges and freezers,” remembers Farren. “We had people out at mini depots around the country helping to man them. Everyone wanted to help. No-one wanted to be sitting there not helping the business. We were all asking, ‘how do we get ourselves out of this?’”

Back at base in Woking, menu boards were being redesigned day by day to account for the amount of stock each restaurant received; hardly any franchises had the full range on offer. Other team members were briefed to handle the hundreds of inbound press inquiries (the story made it to the BBC, CNN, USA Today and even the New York Times), while a handful were in charge of media – switching it off where there was no chicken and switching it on where there was.

Farren chose not to press the eject switch on media entirely, because if certain franchises did have stock “and customers didn’t come then they would have to waste the chicken”. It was, for the CMO, “an immense amount of work”.

“At that point frankly we weren’t thinking about advertising and marketing at all,” says Farren. “We were thinking about how we just keep the business alive.”

Across London, KFC’s creative agency of just 11 months was aware something was awry over in Surrey: all their meetings and calls had been cancelled with the brand. So far it hadn’t been smooth sailing with KFC; while the relationship had solidified itself, the strutting, hip-hop bird that starred in the first campaign – The Whole Chicken – had led to criticism from both vegetarians and the industry for radically aligning food with the animal it comes from. Mother’s side order was a barrage of complaints to the ASA (none were formally investigated), and its joint chief creative officer Hermeti Balarin admits the overriding reaction to the piece is “still an open wound”.

“I thought we were going to get massive support,” he says. “But even some of our more like-minded peers shied away from it. How can this be, when we’re desperate for brave work, that people in our industry were the first to attack?” Still, the client was undeterred by the campaign’s polarising effect and pushed on with its strategy promoting freshness and the British/Irish origins of its chicken. So when Mother understood the full extent of the so-called #ChickenCrisis, it also found itself launching into crisis mode – without an official brief from its client.

“At that moment everyone was so in tune that instinct kicked in,” Balarin recalls. “We thought, we don’t have access to our clients, but we know exactly how they’re feeling right now and whenever they can we think they’re going to try and say something to show they really care. And everyone went into their own reactive mode immediately.” Balarin and his joint chief creative officer, Ana Balarin, briefed all staff to think of a solution – not just those on the account. A meeting room was turned into a war room and ideas flew around WhatsApp. These were “very quickly whittled them down to those we felt were disruptive enough and sincere enough”; amazingly, the idea of apologising by rearranging the K, the F and the C to spell FCK on a chicken bucket was one that was landed upon by a number of creatives at Mother.

“We had to get to this idea that was worthy of us calling those guys, who we now know were ... not thinking about advertising,” says Hermeti Balarin. “We joked that we crafted the email subject as much as we crafted the copy of the ad. We could tell that people were battling something huge. I think it was a bit of a miracle they created the time to think about it properly, and say ‘this is actually a credible thing to do’.” Mother’s initial pitch is largely unchanged from the print ad that ran on 23 February. The FCK grabbed attention, while the copy beneath spelled out a complete and utter apology to both customers and franchise owners – who arguably were left in the most precarious position of all. Originally the agency suggested a campaign that comprised more platforms, too, however this was narrowed just to print.

“With out of home you couldn’t apologise because you couldn’t get people to read it for long enough, and on social it would become more banter – it would have been too funny,” says Farren. Throughout the whole affair the CMO and her in-house social team had been carefully treading the line of light-heartedness and seriousness, particularly on Twitter, and it was this tone of voice that set the stage for Mother’s ad.

After close shaves with the ASA already, was the team concerned about the implications of very nearly swearing?

“I was less worried about that,” says Farren. “The important thing wasn’t to just to say ‘Fuck!’ on its own – it was to get people’s attention so we could apologise.”

Hermeti Balarin, a Brazilian, was confident Brits’ love of wit would override any outrage they might have felt over a vowel-less curse. “The F-word is used in so many different contexts in the UK,” he explains. “Everyone understood the tone. And in Britain especially, they value you if you create something that is witty and smart – even if it’s technically a swearword.”

Now the crisis is over, franchises are operating as usual, and Mother and KFC arrived back from Cannes Lions on Sunday armed with awards for their handling of the crisis. Some have questioned whether a hastily produced print ad is worthy of such accolades, but that’s irrelevant to KFC. The whole experience has made Farren aware of two things: to always give precedent to the public’s perception of events, even when it feels like the end of the world internally; and to take the time to integrate your agency teams into the business.

“We’d never have got this work out so quickly, and I don’t think we’d have made the leap that we did, if our Mother team hadn’t been part of the business,” she says. “The investment of time and sheer energy that we’ve put into bringing these guys in has been so worth it.”

And in some bizarre way the #ChickenCrisis couldn’t have been a better advert for Farren’s brand strategy As Hermeti Balarin puts it: “The reason this whole thing happened was because KFC sells fresh chicken.”

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