Saving face with tone of voice

Mar 02, 2018

Last week KFC’s operations in the UK were in meltdown as teething problems with a new delivery service left most of its stores without any chicken. John O’Sullivan explores how the brand used its tone of voice to save some face from the nightmare situation.


Aside from the focus on how the country is struggling to cope with the onslaught of snow from the East, one of the most talked about stories in the UK over the last week has been the fact that KFC – the most famous chicken brand in the world – had to shut the majority of its stores because it didn’t have any chicken.

The issue stemmed from its decision to shut its six regional Bidvest-run distribution centres across the UK and replace them with a single warehouse in the Midlands run by DHL. It’s fair to say things haven’t gone to plan – during the first week roughly 700 of its 900 UK outlets were closed and those that remained open were operating with reduced menus.



It was an absolute catastrophe for the brand and initially it responded with a rather corporate statement pinned to the front window of the shut stores reading: “Sorry we’re closed. We’ve brought a new delivery partner on board and they’ve had a couple of teething problems – getting fresh chicken out to 900 restaurants is pretty complex.”

But KFC is a brand known for its on-point tone of voice – most recently shown in its brilliant Double Down launch that borrowed the language of limited-edition streetwear drops – and it’s been fascinating to see how it attempted to use this to save face with its target demographic once it got its mojo back.

This started with a section on its UK website called “Crossed the road”, in reference to the classic joke, where updates on the situation can be found. Here, fans can locate their nearest open restaurants or, in other words, find out where the chicken has crossed the road. The section is filled with personable phrases that poke fun at KFC’s problems, such as “KFC runs out of chicken – couldn’t make it up,” and “A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal.” Visitors are also invited to fill in their details to receive a “finger lickin’ reward” when their restaurant re-opens.



While many on social media suggested “a little bit of humour goes a long way,” not all disgruntled chicken fans were pleased that KFC was apparently taking the situation so lightly. So at the end of the week the brand took a much more apologetic tone in a well received full page ad campaign in a series of national newspapers. This ad, created by Mother London, shows an empty KFC bucket with the brand’s logo rearranged to spell “FCK”. Underneath, the headline “We’re sorry” introduces a quick update on the situation. Simple and, some would argue for a mainstream brand, a bit shocking, it was certainly an effective way to get its millennial and Gen-Z packed fan base back on side.

Inevitably, KFC was not the only fast food chain to respond quickly to the well-publicised supply chain meltdown. Burger King, brought into the conversation by a viral ITN news bulletin in which a furious customer ranted: “I had to go to Burger King,” created a series of pun-heavy offers to poke fun at their rivals. “We don’t chicken out” it proclaimed while reducing the price of nine chicken nuggets to 99p and the Chicken Royale to £1.99.

On Twitter, it even leveraged the “FCK” ad saying: “Here’s a special offer on chicken because we didn’t bucket up earlier this week.”

KFC will ultimately be judged on how quickly it gets its operations back to working order, and this week it has experienced further issues with gravy deliveries.

But in the meantime, by adopting a self-deprecating and transparent approach, rather than simply burying its head in the sand and waiting for the crisis to pass, it has presented itself as a human company that makes mistakes and can laugh at itself. It has also kept the focus away from discussions about redundancies caused by the logistics change, which are unlikely to be a popular topic with the brand’s target audience.

In this way, by using a bit of humour, adding a note of apology and striking the right tone, KFC has bought itself a little bit of extra time and good will from its customers that might be enough to see it come through this crisis with some credit.

News & insights straight to your inbox!