Digital MarketingDigital AdvertisingFinger lickin’… bad?

Finger lickin’... bad?

How KFC turned threat into opportunity by suspending its iconic slogan

30-second summary:

  • Brands usually take pride in their slogans, but what happens in unusual times?
  • Upholding public safety, KFC decided to suspend its brand tagline in August 2020
  • Uncover the challenge and strategy of a bold and elaborate campaign that gave KFC a 119 percent uptick in sales

KFC’s “finger lickin’ good” slogan is one of the world’s most recognizable taglines. However, the fast-food giant was moved to suspend the slogan last summer because it contravened pandemic hygiene advice.

The suspension was potentially catastrophic for KFC, but the company has turned the situation on its head with an award-winning, self-parodying campaign to make light of the situation. The campaign has yielded increased awareness, as well as sales.

Here we speak to Kate Wall, strategy and innovation director for KFC UK and Ireland, as well as Joe Brewer, client partner from Mindshare, the key architects of the campaign, about its success.

When a brand drops a slogan, it’s usually for one of two reasons. Either the tagline has tanked, or the audience has moved on and a fresh approach is required. Few, if any, taglines are dropped when they’re performing as well as ever. And even fewer are dropped on the grounds of public safety.

But this was the fate that befell KFC’s “finger lickin’ good” slogan during the pandemic. The iconic idiom, coined by a random restaurant manager during the 1950s, has become synonymous with the KFC brand, as distinctive as the red bucket and the colonel’s white suit. However, the social restrictions of lockdown meant the tag now clashed with basic government safety advice. During the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency was inundated with complaints.

So in August 2020, KFC took the decision to put the slogan on furlough, announcing its suspension in a blaze of publicity. Far from being a tortuous decision, Kate Wall (who head up KFC’s advertising and retail division at the time) says it was actually a pretty straightforward call.

“Responsibility is always at the heart of everything we do – but it became more crucial than ever during the pandemic. We knew it wouldn’t be forever, but we recognized our slogan was probably the most inappropriate out there in the context of coronavirus! As soon as it became clear that it wasn’t the right time to be saying it, we decided to pause it.

“The decision was made really quickly. The situation around us was rapidly evolving and it became clear that we had to do something. And that something, despite not being an easy thing to do, was to pause the use of the slogan – simple as.”

Nonetheless, this represented a major challenge for KFC’s marketing team. The slogan was still working well, a new “finger lickin” campaign had only just gone live. Now they had to come up with something new – and fast.

The marketers could have started from scratch and attempted to bury the famous old strapline. Instead, they chose to lean into the problem and create a campaign that would poke fun at their own predicament.

The new campaign, developed in tandem with Mindshare UK, Mother and Freuds, would display a classic KFC billboard bearing the traditional slogan, but with the ‘finger lickin’ section pixelated out. This core visual would be supported by the message, “That thing we always say? Ignore it. For now.”

The campaign would be global, but with the emphasis firmly on the UK. It would be spread across television commercials, print media, social and out-of-home (OOH). And the focus would be on fun; KFC even published a press release on its own website, awarding itself the title of ‘most inappropriate slogan of 2020.’

The aim, Kate says, was “driving buzz to generate media coverage, social engagement, and conversation, and increase brand awareness. But more importantly, we wanted to put a smile on people’s faces during a particularly tricky time.”

Early impact, long tail

As detailed by Mindshare, the campaign had three core pillars running through it:

  • Go hard, early, securing a prime position in key target media
  • Be public. Get the campaign into the public eye, and keep it there
  • Secure a long tail. Keep the buzz going by allowing KFC’s own fanbase to take ownership

Initially, the planning team wanted to target mass-scale media, aiming to drive home the importance of the volte-face. They would then focus on targeted reminders, pushing their campaign beyond their frontline audience towards harder-to-reach consumers.

To campaign kicked off with a takeover of social media, exploiting the possibilities of TikTok’s Top View, which pushes an ad towards the user as soon as they open the app, and Twitter’s First View, which ensures the first ad in a user’s timeline. Across Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, the planning used special reach buys across the whole of the UK.

This certainly wasn’t a cheap option. A Top View ad, for example, costs $65,000 a day for 7.4 million impressions. However, it provided immediate visibility and ensured the campaign wouldn’t be drowned out by the noise around the pandemic. According to Twitter, a placement on First View can increase Tweet recall by more than 141 percent.

Building on this initial impact, the marketing team used real-time news-signal targeting on Twitter, to capitalize on the platform’s visibility and reputation; Twitter is used as a news source by over 20 million people, making it the ideal platform to propagate the new message.

A separate full-page domination campaign was splashed across all major national print titles, enabling the marketing team to deliver long-form copy in a traditionally high-dwell channel. And a partnership with LadBible (which claims to have an audience of nearly a billion people across its various channels) was designed to drive traction in the crucial 18-34 year old demographic.

Finally, the “not finger lickin'” ads were beamed across key public sites, notably the Piccadilly Lights, which has been described as the world’s most iconic advertising board. Even in the middle of a pandemic, with all its attendant restrictions, these huge outdoor billboards (supported by a two-day roadside buy) would generate major out-of-home publicity for the campaign.

Sense of ownership

From the outset, audience engagement was a key objective. The marketing team wanted to give KFC fans a sense of ownership, allowing them to shape the initiative and provide the long-tail which was such a key part of the initial planning.

Firstly, a group of carefully selected influencers including rapper Professor Green and model Emma Louise Connolly were invited to create their own KFC slogans in response to the public tagline removal. Then the campaign invited everyone in the UK to post their own tagline idea.

The slogans, sent in from all over the country, were shared by KFC on social media, creating a grassroots buzz around the new initiative – and keeping it relevant as the pandemic restrictions dragged on.

Technology to identify opportunity

With such a simple visual message, the campaign creative did not rely on high-end digital innovation. However, technology was essential to the planning side of the project, allowing KFC and its partners to maximize advertising spend and identify a high-reach, high-impact opportunity.

KxM, a cross-media optimization tool that uses empiric data to estimate the reach and frequency of a campaign across different media types, was used to plan an AV channel mix over the opening weekend. Meanwhile, Finecast, an addressable TV company that provides tailored ads to broadcasters on smart TVs, was harnessed to connect with harder-to-reach audiences.

Finally, a suite of out-of-home (OOH) planning tools provided by Kinetic allowed Mindshare and its colleagues to select the high-impact sites that were so crucial in the first 48 hours, ensuring the message cut through with those on the move as well as sitting in front of a screen.

“We had some fun – that’s what was disruptive”

The headline results are striking. The campaign reached over 34.2 million people in less than 48 hours – the highest market penetration KFC has ever achieved via a paid social campaign. All told, the campaign delivered 544 pieces of earned media coverage in the UK, and 2,511 pieces worldwide across 100 countries, representing over a billion people. This translated into a 119 percent uptick in sales – a hugely impressive statistic given KFC’s restaurants were shut for much of the campaign’s duration.

The long tail engagement strategy also paid off, providing 10 times the initial planned engagement; based on YouGov figures, Mindshare says the campaign increased advertising awareness by 113 percent, more than doubling the brand scores for “fun” and “has character” terms.

This success has been recognized in a string of accolades. In the 2021 Drum Awards, Mindshare UK picked up the Grand Prix award, as well as the Retail and Ecommerce and Best Pivot gongs.

But perhaps the most notable achievement, for KFC at least, has been the ability to take ownership of a major public relations threat and turn it into an opportunity.

“Pausing the use of an iconic slogan on a global scale is always going to be difficult,” says Kate.

“But we recognized that the world had been united by a common issue and we were able to lean into that and, despite the context being serious, we had some fun with it. That’s what I’d say was disruptive and is not something that many brands are brave enough or in a position to do.”

KFC has now brought back its ‘finger lickin’ slogan – the self-imposed ban was lifted in May, to mark the reopening of restaurants in England. However, the kudos the brand has gained for its self-deprecating realism during the pandemic may continue to provide gains when (or if) the pandemic is finally brought under control.

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