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Why KFC isn't stickin' with its famous finger lickin' slogan... for now

You've likely noticed that KFC whipped up headlines by censoring Colonel Sanders’ 64-year-old 'finger-lickin’ good’ slogan in its latest ads. As the UK campaign is rolled out across the globe, Kate Wall, head of advertising at KFC UK and Hermeti Balarin, executive creative director at Mother, explain why the chicken chain has put all of its eggs in one basket.

Back in March, all 900 of KFC's UK restaurants were shut overnight. Globally, it was much the same story. The business and its smaller franchisees took months to safely reopen and realign around drive-thrus and delivery. Rubbing salt into the wounds, the pandemic hit just as KFC was running a major new ad campaign depicting diners licking their fingers – sparking howls of protest that it was inappropriate at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

Finger lickin' was out, hand washing was in. KFC canned months of work almost overnight, dropping a TV ad and billboards, but not before 163 complaints were lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

“It doesn’t feel like the right time to be airing this campaign, so we’ve decided to pause it for now – but we’re really proud of it and look forward to bringing it back at a later date,” teased a spokesperson. Five months later and it is back. Sort of.

'It’s Finger Lickin’ Good*' (note the asterisk) spans TVC, print, OOH, and social with a bigger than usual first-week blast. It shows the slogan, but blurred, and ends with the message: "That thing we always say? Ignore it. For now."

KFC has been better prepared than most for chaos. It is, after all, the chicken company that two years ago infamously ran out of chicken. But even in its toughest moments it has shown considerable talent for turning adversity into advertising. Its chicken shortage prompted the memorable 'FCK' bucket ad, and its first ad after lockdown, ‘We’ll Take It From Here’, was praised for paying tribute to desperate diners' attempts to recreate the colonel's secret recipe at home – with varying degrees of success.

So now, after proving its creative chops, KFC UK is coordinating the chain's first global ad campaign. The work's always been good, but rarely in the past could it be relevant to the needs and nuances of each international market. But as KFC UK's head of advertising, Kate Wall, and Hermeti Balarin, executive creative director at its agency Mother explain, the fact we're all sharing the same experience around the world has helped grease the wheels for a wider campaign.

"We've all shared this same insight for the first time ever," says Wall. "We're all pushing off the same side. Mother had this incredible idea."

Balarin adds: "It is one of the most famous slogans in the world, the food is so good that you don't want to leave anything at all on your fingers. It is in people's minds [so] we can let them connect the dots without having to say the whole thing."

In creative circles, running campaigns without those distinctive assets is the equivalent of cycling with no hands, everyone can try it but most will fall flat. But this gambit has instantly amassed a ton of earned media. In the UK, the Radio 4, The Guardian and the Daily Mail covered the slogan's temporary retirement, theoretically reaching all basic British media-consuming archetypes. Meanwhile the morning of the launch, Balarin was obsessively watching Australian news media dissect the campaign.

It's a "no-brainer" to create work that'll generate wider waves, he said. "If you are a big brand and spending lots of money on media, it is sacrilege to not have it go beyond that. You can't be doing your job very well.

"If you're just aware of cultural context around you, the turbulent times that we're going through right now offer plenty of opportunities for very tuned in marketeers and agencies to figure out how to cut ahead."

He sees opportunities for more global activity, from bold grandstanding campaigns like this, all the way down the funnel to the simplest of voucher promotions.

But while Balarin's no stranger to international campaigns, he wasn't exactly expecting Mother's idea to go further than the UK.

He explains: "There's this sense of unity around the globe right now. It's the first time ever for at least two generations we've had everyone feeling the same about something. As horrible as the pandemic is, it has created a unique insight or context for everyone to actually riff off."

In another context, it'd be "very hard to replicate something as smooth as this".

On a market-by-market basis, you'll only see relevant language translations. The work stays the same. There's no tailoring, no nuance, no amendments to speak of. In our solitary cravings for deep-fried chicken, we are united.

Wall adds: "Every single market fell in love with this when the guys presented it. While everyone's at slightly different stages of the pandemic, this works no matter what stage you're in."

So five months on, little's changed about the execution of the campaign. Mindshare bought and planned the media. In the UK, you'll see it on TV, big sites like Piccadilly Lights and Westfield, and in print. KFC's gone "heavy" into TikTok and Twitter too. With Freuds handling PR, there's an attempt to push it further.

But there are some differences.

Wall says: "We’ve probably gone stronger than usual on the first week. This campaign is so iconic and simple. You want everyone to see it really quickly across multiple screens and locations."

Of course, KFC operates in a busy space. Barely a week goes by without Burger King, McDonald's, the pizza firms et al trying to grab a share of voice for that short term sales fix. And now as it becomes safer to eat again, all are jostling.

When prompted on its so-called rivals' beefs and stunts, Wall says: "The industry can get a bit silly. What's sometimes frustrating is when work wins awards that you don't see in real life. We're not about that, every time enter a campaign, you will see that campaign out in the world.

Karl Wikstrom, senior planner at European advertising giant Akestam Holst, shared his views on the work. "It’s a clever publicity move for getting lots of free media reach by announcing, essentially, that they’re not doing a campaign. It makes the brand more relevant in the minds of consumers at a low cost, and reinforces the existing slogan by announcing its temporary removal.

He got to the nub of the problem: is finger-lickin' actually a danger to the public? Well, as many have pointed out, only if you are licking someone else's fingers, or didn't wash your hands before eating. It's inadvisable but in the grand scheme of things unlikely to have much effect in stemming coronavirus. Wikstrom said: "By pretending to solve a problem, they’re putting themselves into the media.

"I don’t think the fear of germs is impacting the KFC business, but it, as all brands are, are struggling with the decreased footfall due to Covid-19, and that this is putting it in the spotlight."

He thinks this work has taken a leaf from Burger King's infamous Moldy Burger. "Engaging in a bit of playful self-criticism can be very good for a brand. It is a gentler version of Moldy Burger, the idea that fast food can be icky – in this case, licking fingers during a pandemic – it highlights something positive about the brand.

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