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Ruling the roost: how KFC refused to chicken out of a challenge

With nominations for this year's Future 50 currently open, we profile last year's inductees. 2020 was a tough and transformative year for the fast-food sector, and at KFC UK and Ireland, it was Dhiren Karnani who led the operations team as it drove deeper into food delivery channels when reopening after the first lockdown.

Born in the Philippines, the astute marketer Dhiren Karnani came to the UK to make his name, first working on Ben and Jerry’s and then joining KFC in 2018.

The KFC chicken crisis in 2018 saw Karnani face his biggest challenge to date. Having run out of chicken, the company responded with its ‘FCK’ campaign: an apology ad rearranging its initials on the side of one of its famous buckets. This experience helped him navigate KFC through the new crisis brought about by Covid, when, in March last year, all 900 of its UK restaurants shut overnight.

Karnani realized early on that the lockdown was unlikely to be short one, and so before everyone else had the same idea he ordered desks and monitors for his home and avoided the inevitable months’ long wait. “That helped keep me sane because I was fully set up from week one.”

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.

The pandemic hit just as KFC was running a major new ad campaign depicting diners licking their fingers – a campaign it had to press pause on when more than 300 complaints came in deeming it inappropriate at the height of the coronavirus crisis.

When it did reopen, it suddenly had to ramp-up its digital ecosystem and become more competitive in delivery apps Deliveroo, UberEats and JustEat. For a remote team, there was a huge amount of work to do. As well as working out which venues could actually meet demand, tailoring menus and ensuring orders could be fulfilled, Karnani had the challenge of orientating consumers to a new way of consuming KFC.

In the early days of the lockdown, delivery accounted for nearly 50% of KFC’s UK revenue as people ordered at-home en-masse. “Almost overnight it became half of our business,” says Karnani, who was in charge of the operation. “Before lockdown, we had 20% of our sales mix come from delivery. And so being in charge of that business really took a lot of my time over the first few months of lockdown.”

Its announcement in May that it was open for delivery came with a triumphant call-to-action – ‘we’re back in business’. The engagement campaign lived and breathed on social media, making its way across all of KFC’s channels including TV. The celebrated creative, which was developed in two weeks, showed consumers’ failed attempts at making their own KFC meals at-home. It also shows just how agile KFC’s marketing team has been.

Market conditions have been unpredictable, but there have been benefits to being early on to delivery apps. It was aggressive, delivery-only promotions that became the cornerstone of KFC’s ad campaigning on these platforms. KFC ads were funneling people into the likes of Deliveroo in what Karnani calls “a win/win for both businesses”.

This space has become hugely competitive, but the big question remains: what will consumer preferences be once all the options are back on the table?

“Delivery is definitely here to stay, and it will actually grow,” says Karnani, who believes it really is now part of people’s behaviors.

“To survive in the future, you have to be in delivery, which then means more competition in this space. We just have to make the experience as seamless as possible and make sure customers’ food is piping hot and fresh. Hopefully, we’re making lifelong consumers in this channel.”

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.