Supply chain issues have become the go-to excuse for just about anything. Supply chain ripple effects are impacting every industry from restaurants to retailers. And even as some supply chain snarls are growing less severe, others have no end in sight. This week, Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger predicted supply challenges for semiconductors would continue through 2023.
Yet supply chain excuses are starting to wear thin, particularly when there’s a disconnect between what is communicated and what is delivered (like adding an item to a shopping cart, only to learn later that the item will take 4 weeks for delivery). The longer this continues, the less the generic “supply chain issues” excuse will cut it.
Brands today can learn from one of the greatest examples of crisis communications in marketing history— the infamous KFC 2018 supply chain shortage in the UK.
After changing distribution partners, KFC literally ran out of chicken in the UK and had to shut down 750 restaurants indefinitely. Some consumers were so upset, they called the local police to complain. And unlike today’s supply chain woes, this issue impacted one brand with nonstop news coverage and memes.
KFC took the tack of self-deprecating honesty. Their agency Mother created a full-page ad showing an empty chicken bucket that swapped the letters of KFC to FCK. And the rest of the communication flowed from there.
Here’s how Jenny Packwood, KFC UK and Ireland Head of Brand Engagement, later described some of the lessons that I think are relevant for any brand working through a crisis like supply chain issues:
“So often when crisis hits, the easy and most comfortable thing is to retract into that safe corporate space where you do a terribly formal statement and everything sounds like it is written by a lawyer.
“We actively decided not to do that. We know who we are as a brand and what our tone is and we stuck to it, which is light-hearted, honest, authentic and a little bit irreverent.
“We just put up our hand and said this is a massive cock-up, and that gave us huge credibility and won us goodwill among the media and our customers.
“The most powerful thing about this is that it enabled us to take back control of the narrative. Those of you who have worked in the thick of a crisis know that you often feel like you have completely lost control, and the story has its own momentum. This totally shut it down; all of the attention was focused on our response, as opposed to whether we were paying our staff, which we were doing, or what we were doing with the wasted chicken.
“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 – ‘fuck’ – it also resonated with consumers and disarmed the issue a bit.”
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years: