KFC thought the way to meet the challenge was to spend millions on
a TV ad campaign from DraftFCB, Chicago. TV is a marketing
channel that's worked well for other fast-food introductions, but
the creative was simultaneously underwhelming and yet, by telling
consumers to "Unthink KFC," seemed to undermine the chain's main
game, fried chicken.
Whether it was working or not we may never know, because this
was the point at which the marketer brought in the big gun, Oprah
Winfrey, and the trouble really started. The company's offer on the
daytime diva's talk show May 4 of two free pieces of grilled
chicken, two sides and a biscuit to anyone who downloaded a coupon
within a two-day period should have been a huge promotional coup.
Instead, it turned into an unmitigated disaster when the company
was unable to execute and actually had to rescind the offer.
KFC's offer sent the chain skyrocketing to the No. 1 topic on
Twitter. By Wednesday, blogs began reporting "riots" at New York
City KFCs. On Thursday, local news crews interviewed fuming
customers getting turned away in other markets, including Chicago.
Consumers complained about rude service, and media complained about
a PR team that seemed asleep at the wheel. By Friday, the day after
KFC pulled the promotion, NPR was calling KFC "the James Frey of
fast food," referring to the author of a memoir praised by Ms.
Winfrey that was later exposed as fiction.
In the end, KFC managed to strain relationships with three core
constituents: consumers, the media and franchisees that swallowed
the cost of the free food themselves. "This is going to damage
their brand," said Gene Grabowski, senior VP, Levick Strategic
Just how did things go so far awry?
KFC spokeswoman Laurie Schalow maintained that the chain prepared
thoroughly, given the time constraints. After months of seeking Ms.
Winfrey's approval, she said KFC wound up with a one-week window to
execute its promotion. KFC accepted Ms. Winfrey's projections for
response, based on other offers from her show -- and doubled them.
About 10.5 million coupons were downloaded, but in what might have
been a twist unexpected by KFC, many were also photocopied.
There was also a report at the website
Consumerist that some KFC franchisees did not participate in
the promotion because they were not reimbursed for the giveaway by
corporate. KFC told Ad Age the company did fund the promotion for
its own stores and franchisees were expected to pay for the free
meals at theirs, but stressed that franchisees have been happy to
participate in the promotion -- despite numerous reports to the
In all, KFC gave away 4 million meals in two days. That sounds
like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the 4 million pieces of
grilled chicken it doled out April 27 alone when it declared a
national "Unfry Day" in ads featuring Mr. Eaton. By the time KFC
realized it wasn't keeping up with demand -- and there were 6
million or more coupons outstanding -- the chain pulled the plug on
the promotion and issued rain checks to consumers willing to go
back to a KFC, fill out a form and wait for another coupon to
arrive in the mail. They'll be rewarded with a free Pepsi. The
chain never called in a crisis firm.
News of the bungled giveaway became so widespread that Mr. Eaton
appeared on Ms. Winfrey's show May 9 and offered this spin: "We had
very big projection numbers on this, but not in our wildest
imagination could we believe the response we've gotten," he said.
"It's been absolutely fantastic. But in fact, it's been so big it's
been overwhelming. Yesterday and the day before, some of our
stores, our lobbies were full, the drive-throughs were packed, we
had crowds everywhere."
Negative feelings grow
KFC did accomplish one thing -- a sea of buzz for its product. But
the chatter got nasty when the promotion ceased. According to Zeta
Interactive, which monitors blog chatter, KFC generally popped up
in about 538 blog posts daily, with 72% of mentions positive.
During the promotion, that number soared to 1,319 mentions, 89% of
which were positive. But cutting the cord on Thursday had an
immediate effect, with 772 posts. Negative ratings shot up, to
"The free-chicken promotion created a sense of enthusiasm within
online communities and enhanced KFC's online reputation," Al
DiGuido, CEO of Zeta Interactive, said in an e-mail. "However, as
soon as KFC decided to halt the promotion, their brand suffered a
brutal backlash, plummeting down to 67% positive buzz.??With this
overwhelmingly negative response, KFC did more damage to its brand
by running an incomplete promotion than if they had just not
launched the campaign in the first place."
KFC begs to differ. "We have never had more positive customer
response," said Ms. Schalow, noting that about two in four
grilled-chicken customers it's attracted are new or rare visitors
to the chain. However, Technomic President Ron Paul said that's the
group easiest to alienate.
Ad Age's Annals of Marketing Disasters
KFC's chicken run will probably end up one of the all-time blunders
by advertisers, and this publication has been there to chronicle
them all. Here are some of our top choices, listed in no particular
NEW COKE: What was Big Red smoking? The Atlanta
soft-drink giant bowed a much-hyped, much-sweeter formulation in
1985 and well, you know the rest of the story. It's enough to make
Mean Joe Green cry.
KRAFT'S READY TO ROLL: It was consumers who
thought they'd been rolled after Kraft accidentally printed too
many winning game pieces in packages of its products in 1989,
leaving some 10,000 folks looking for the keys to their shiny new
Dodge Caravans. The pulled promotion ended up costing Kraft some $3
million to $4 million. Ouch.
HOOVER: A Hoover marketing deal in the U.K.
crashed and burned after it offered a "buy a vacuum, get two free
airline tickets" scheme. After incomprehensibly failing to realize
that was the flier's deal of a lifetime, Hoover had to suck it
DR PEPPER: Coke might be it when it comes to
the most boneheaded gaffe of all time, but Dr Pepper messed up big
when it promised America a free fizzy if Guns N' Roses ever
finished its "Chinese Democracy" album, which was 17 years in the
making. Well, it seemed like a safe bet at the time.
MCDONALD'S BEANIE BABIES: The fast feeder tried
to satisfy America's insatiable appetite for Beanie Babies during a
collecting craze by giving them away for free with a Happy Meal.
But McD's miscalculated. Instead, moms bought the meals and threw
out the food. And the Golden Arches ran out of Beanies and had an
angry mob of moms on its hands.
Got any others? Send them to [email protected]
How to hold an orderly giveaway
Massive giveaways don't have to wreak havoc on a restaurant system.
Denny's gave away 2 million of its legendary Grand Slam breakfasts
during an eight-hour period in February. With a smaller restaurant
base, the chain was able to seat and serve its guests. And while
most locations had long lines for the bulk of the day, there were
few reports of unhappy customers. John Dillon, VP-marketing at
Denny's, shared some top tactics for doing a big giveaway right.
Communicate, communicate and then communicate some
more: Denny's executives toured the restaurant system,
talking to franchisees and staff about the coming promotion. They
also held town-hall meetings to share ideas.
Energize the staff. Happy front-of-the-house
folks are a critical component to a positive guest experience.
Denny's goosed enthusiasm among wait staff with its first-ever
Super Bowl ad.
Keep it simple. Make the offer clear and easy
to understand. Hold it on one day and within a set timeframe. And
make sure it supports an overarching brand strategy.
Pray for the best but prepare for the worst.
"We did as much modeling as we could to plan through different
scenarios," Mr. Dillon said."But at the end of the day, you don't
know what to expect." Before the event, Denny's shipped thousands
of rain-check coupons to its restaurants, just in case.
Don't hurry, or don't do it. Denny's planned
its giveaway months in advance, and it took different forms
throughout the process. But the planning paid off. "We heard of a
couple of restaurants that ran out of syrup," he said.