The year is 2018. The skies over London are blue, the children are laughing and the birds are chirping. People smile as they enter their local KFC or call to have their favourite meals delivered. Only to hear the words that shook the entire nation to its core:
“We’re out of chicken.”
The children stop laughing and the people’s smiles fall away. London hath fallen and chaos had ensued at the one bird that had not crossed the street.
Yes, this was a true incident that took place in UK—550 of KFC’s outlets had to close down when their chickens hit a bump in the roads of the franchise’s supply chain. In true 21st century fashion, people unleashed their rage by trending the incident in a matter of minutes on Twitter under the hashtag #KFCCrisis. Local police stations had even been contacted amidst the panic and had to take to their own Twitter to remind the desperate crowds that their chicken shortage ‘is not a police matter’.
So, what exactly had happened? How could a fried-chicken eatery be out of the one thing that they are known for?
In the previous year, KFC had struck a deal to switch its deliveries from South African-owned Bidvest Logistics to DHL who would manage the physical warehouse and distribution services. This switch led to ‘operational issues’ that were then blamed for the delay and inconveniences. Disruption isn’t entirely uncommon in a supply chain but in this particular situation, several things seemed to have gone wrong at once with KFC. Customers were dissatisfied and worse, they felt betrayed.
How did a household brand as popular as KFC handle such a crisis then?
Frank’s founder Andrew Bloch describes it as “a masterclass in communication” – and he’s absolutely right. Rather than opting for the easy route of a formal statement that would quieten the commotion while also allowing the brand to comfortably hide behind words that echoed those of a faceless lawyer than the brand, KFC chose to bridge the gulf and stick to their brand’s tone—light-hearted, authentic and honest.
In initial responses via their Twitter, they used witty puns to make light of the situation while also enforcing damage control:
KFC did not attempt to ever downplay the situation or make it seem less worse than it actually was—rather, they focused on openly admitting their mistakes and did not deflect the blame onto any other parties.
Thus, this honest strategy birthed one of the most iconic apology campaigns done by a brand in history:
By rearranging the letters of their brand name to express their sentiments about the entire situation in the most humanely way possible, it was one of the bravest and most daring apologies—one that was timely accurate and fortunately on-brand, as it immediately went viral on social media and helped bring a smile amongst the distress that had been caused. It had only been available on print, plastered across one entire page without any comment by the newspaper as they believed the ad spoke for itself and they were not wrong.
Jenny Packwood, KFC’s UK and Ireland Head of Brand Engagement stated, “It gave us a way of saying sorry in a bold and human way, and in a way that felt true to our brand. Basically, this is what we were all saying in the office all the time – ‘f*ck’ – it also resonated with consumers and disarmed the issue a bit.”
The utter honesty, thus, helped to lessen the blow that had been caused. “We’re sorry”, “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal” are all toned so as to own up to the problem at hand and portrays a humanness that could not have been achieved better. More than the ‘sorry’, it is the delivery of the apology that bears the weight of the situation and that can act as that which shifts the emotions of the general public.
As for the issues around the logistics and supply chain management, KFC shortly switched back to their original supplier, Bidvest Logistics. By easing the pressure on DHL’s depot, the restaurants were able to get back on track and reopen all their closed outlets.
Perhaps in one of the rarer instances during such crises, the most impressive feat to take away from this situation was the response and the way in which KFC prioritised sincerity in their apology. One often assumes that corporate crises always lead to extreme disasters that sink a company but this is a clear case against this misconception.
After all, behind every brand is a human and it wouldn’t hurt to tap into that emotional aspect once in a while, in order to appease to your distraught consumers.