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By Rebecca Stewart | Trends Editor

May 26, 2020 | 7 min read

500 of KFC’s 960 UK restaurants are now open for takeaway. However, the chicken chain's road to “full recovery” will require both flexibility and a mobile acceleration, according to its UK and Ireland marketing director.

KFC UK is no stranger to shutting up shop in the middle of a crisis.

In 2018 the fast-food outlet came up against a supply-chain breakdown that caused it to run out of chicken and forced the closure of more than 250 UK restaurants. A few days into the catastrophe the brand, and its agency Mother London, quickly scamped up an apology ad – rearranging the K, the F and the C to spell out ‘FCK‘ on a chicken bucket and running the creative in several national newspapers.

During the last week of March, the self-proclaimed purveyor of finger lickin’ goodness was forced to close its doors once more in line with government guidance that all non-essential businesses reconsider their operations to contain the spread of coronavirus. With lockdown restrictions having been eased in recent weeks (and further barriers to be lowered) the chain has begun tentatively reopening, delivering food to people’s homes via platforms such as Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats.

After a nine-week hiatus, KFC’s above-the-line marketing has returned alongside its popcorn chicken. A campaign from Mother is running across TV, video-on-demand and social, marking a new era for brand in the time of Covid-19 and social distancing.

The cheeky creative celebrates fans real (and mixed) attempts to replicate their own version of its fried chicken at home but assures them: ‘We’ll take it from here.‘

With fast-food bedfellows like McDonald’s and Greggs also taking steps to reopen (and market it carefully), KFC is far from alone. However, while its latest ad push has been striking the right tone across social media, its top UK and Ireland marketer Jack Hinchliffe is all too aware that there is a “long road” ahead to full recovery.

This journey, he tells The Drum, will require not only investment in the brand’s existing mobile app but also a flexible and agile approach to media planning as the reverberations from the coronavirus crisis rumble on.

Getting back to business

It’s no secret that Covid-19 is causing marketers to tighten their belts. The latest IPA Bellwether report shows that UK marketing budgets to have grown at their slowest rate since the 2008/9 financial crisis.

For KFC, the public health emergency has caused a dip in brand investment, but now that it’s focused on getting back to business in a way that’s safe for staff and customers, it doesn’t have any plans to go dark on the marketing front.

kfc empty restaurant

“We’re a brand that is (almost) always-on,” he explains Hinchcliffe, “so the very fact we paused our above-the-line investment for a nine-week period has already had an impact on our full-year marketing investment.

With shops closed and customers stuck at home, sales at stores open for more than a year fell 8% at KFC in the first three months of 2020, but as KFC UK has been slowly opening some units for delivery, the “significant commercial impact” has been softened by hungry customers ordering for delivery.

“As a team we’re really focused on building towards recovery. One thing I absolutely recognise is that it won’t stand us in good stead if we wait for full recovery to take place before we start investing in media again,” Hinchcliffe adds.

“We need to stay agile though. Just because we have 500 restaurants open, we still have a long journey ahead. We’re only halfway through.”

Accelerating mobile

Hinchcliffe is clear that KFC’s marketing spend, and strategy, will “flex” in line with government guidance, as and when lockdown is eased. As of now, there is no roadmap on how long it will take the brand to recover (both in the UK and abroad) but what is clear is that mobile functionality will have a bigger role to play, specifically the KFC app.

Delivery was already a burgeoning channel for KFC, but with social distancing looking like the new normal in Britain it’s only going to become more significant, says Hinchcliffe.

Since 2018, KFC has offered a mobile ordering function through its app, but the marketer suggests KFC has plans to better communicate this offering to customers.

“Speaking frankly, it hasn’t necessarily been the priority channel. Most of our delivery growth has come through digital screens in restaurants. But increasingly, we’re offering customers full autonomy and control over their order [on mobile]. They can order in advance, pay by contactless and then collect their order in the restaurant.

“We’re seeing a huge acceleration of that trend. It was already there and growing prior to this situation, but a huge acceleration is coming,” he explains. As the chain reopens takeaway and drive-thru services, mobile will be “really important” Hinchcliffe adds.

Indeed, mobile platforms and other convenient digital ways of ordering have become the latest battleground for fast food chains amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

KFC rivals like McDonald’s, however, have already been investing heavily in mobile. In 2018, when the golden arches doubled down on its app promotion and made its tech more reliable, it saw 7m downloads, a daily usage jump of 20 – 40% and a 2.6% sales increase to boot.

With services like Deliveroo and Uber Eats emerging as early winners in the current crisis, KFC has an opportunity via its app to speak to customers in a more direct way and make more direct sales that aren’t eaten into by delivery platform fees.

'Distinctly KFC'

KFC’s latest creative bears the hallmark tongue-in-cheek tone that has come to be synonymous with the brand (see: ‘The Whole Chicken’ and ‘KFC Comeback’).

The advertiser is part of a growing group of businesses navigating their reopening strategies carefully, and Hinchcliffe believes KFC is in a strong position to deliver communication that is both practical and memorable during this period.

‘We’ll Take It From Here’ was conceived after Mother’s own research found consumers were fatigued by Zoom conference-call style ads taking up space on their screens.

Hinchclife says: “There’s been some phenomenal work can be coming through during this time from lots of brands, but it’s particularly hard to be distinctive during because a lot of the big universal truths around connection and belonging can feel quite similar; particularly when you're working with user-generated content.“

And so, the brand wanted its comeback work to be “distinctively KFC”.

As for media planning, Hinchliffe says that as lockdown eases, in-store messaging will be crucial in reassuring diners and communicating the brand’s safety measures.

“When it comes to above-the-line and digital, there will be a shift – we’ll see value becoming more important than ever. We also might need to communicate how easy it is to access KFC and the channels that can be done through,” he adds.

There will be no change to how the chain addresses hungry customers, though.

“From a tonal perspective, we have a really clear brand voice, we remain cognizant to, and will respond to, what’s happening.

“But our brand is so human and authentic that it will allow us to still be true to who we are, no matter the cultural context we’re facing.”

Marketing KFC Coronavirus

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