CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Don't be surprised if you see Col. Sanders out filling potholes. In an unusual cause-marketing push, KFC is tackling the pothole problem in Louisville, Ky. in exchange for stamping the fresh pavement with "Re-freshed by KFC," a chalky stencil likely to fade away in the next downpour.
"This program is a perfect example of that rare and optimal occurrence when a company can creatively market itself and help local governments and everyday Americans across the country," said Javier Benito, exec VP-marketing and food innovation at KFC. Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson noted in a statement that budgets are tight for cities across the country, and finding funding for road repairs is a dirty job. "It's great to have a concerned corporation like KFC create innovative private/public partnerships like this pothole refresh program."
The KFC program appears to be part of a growing body of consumer-service marketing that connects in a meaningful way. This past holiday season, Charmin provided a public restroom in Times Square for the third year running. The company has also developed an application for iPhone and BlackBerry that helps consumers find toilets when the need arises. Samsung has installed electrical charging stations in many major airports to help travelers stay connected while in limbo.
Perhaps most importantly, while KFC seems more suited to pot pies than potholes and efforts like these are unlikely to sell chicken sandwiches in the short term, the company is likely to build a reservoir of goodwill among the general population -- particularly when they arrive at the pothole they've gotten used to swerving around.
Jens Bang, president of Cone, a Boston-based cause branding and corporate responsibility firm, said that recent scandals on Wall Street and in the banking industry have built up consumer skepticism, and "corporate marketers have to be concerned about building trusted relationships with their core stakeholders." Given the state of things, Mr. Bang said that corporations are looking to cause marketing for a variety of reasons. "Marketers are looking to use cause marketing or cause branding to look for opportunities to do a few things, build brand equity, enhance reputation. And it's also a big benefit to morale, it's a big help in recruitment and retention."
KFC decided to "Re-fresh" city streets as a tie-in to its new "fresh" campaign, which focuses on food quality. "It was always our plan to make our hometown of Louisville the first city for the program," KFC spokesman Rick Maynard said, adding that pothole-fixing season was an additional impetus. "The mayor was very excited about the program and even stopped by yesterday afternoon when the crew was refreshing the first bunch of potholes."
In addition to the Louisville project, KFC has issued an open offer to U.S. mayors to tell them about the state of their city streets and request assistance. The chain will select as many as four more cities at random for pothole assistance.
Some marketers have made more overt efforts to help the disadvantaged. Starbucks spent a week in New Orleans with its store operators in an effort to rebuild the city. The organization donated about 50,000* community-service hours and was quickly repaid in scads of free media. Shoe company Toms built its business on the premise that for every pair of shoes purchased, one would be given to a child in a developing country. The company planned to donate 200,000 pairs of shoes in 2008 alone.~ ~ ~
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Starbucks had donated 400,000 hours of service.