KFC complaints show us that advertising is not an exercise in wish fulfilment

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This piece first appeared in The Drum.

Haven’t our mothers always told us that the best way to get people to like us is simply to be ourselves?

The wisdom of this old cliché can take a long time to dawn on us, but at some point in our lives we tend to wake up to the fact that nothing is less attractive than trying to be something we’re not; and any type of person can be cool so long as they occupy that type wholly and with integrity.

It seems, however, that no matter how old brands get, this realisation never quite hits them; even if they have their very own Mother advising them, as is the case with KFC.

The fried chicken titan is currently witnessing its ‘Whole Chicken’ ad rack up complaints for a hodgepodge of reasons, chief among which seems to be a belief that the ad, which touts food quality and provenance credentials, isn’t an accurate reflection of who the brand really is. It’s not so much that it’s offensive in a Protein World kind of way; it’s more like a teenager ordering a martini or your dad calling something ‘jokes’… void of authenticity.

It’s easy to see how it ended up here, as it’s a trick attempted by countless brands, and it is perhaps just KFC’s bad fortune that it seems to be getting burned for it when most offenders pass under the radar.

Essentially what happens is that an otherwise successful company identifies a chink in their armour – say a particular negative perception people have, or an audience they lack penetration with – and sets out to remedy it with an ad. In KFC’s case, clearly it realised that people don’t think the company uses high quality chicken, and it figured that by fixing this it would open itself up to a whole new (more discerning) audience.

Seems to make sense right? The problem with this approach, this belief that a brand can be all things to all people if it just covers all the bases in its comms, is that it flies directly in the face of reality. Every brand has specific strengths and weaknesses, which serve a particular market purpose, often with the weaknesses being essential compromises to make the strengths more powerful. Trying to “have it all” and shrug off those weaknesses is wishful thinking, and makes you end up looking foolish.

Imagine for instance if some bright spark working for Cosmopolitan suddenly said: “Hey, guys, I just realised that we currently only cater to 50% of the market, but if we target our next ad at men then we’ll capture 100%!”. Pretty dumb right? And yet that’s kind of what KFC and hundreds of other brands try to do every day: build their brand on the one thing that they are, categorically, not good at.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure KFC has good food quality for its category. Do KFC chickens have better welfare than those of the average chicken shop? Probably. But that’s not much of a platform for a major brand campaign is it? This is evidenced by the fairly meagre promise that it only uses chicken in its products. I doubt the majority of people think KFC uses raccoons and asbestos in its chicken.

Thus we are left with the bizarre marketing scenario of a brand putting its worst foot forward to try and remedy an issue that essentially doesn’t matter to its real target market. It’s an unappetising brief to give an agency, and yet agencies are subjected to these briefs every day, briefs that ignore the realities of the product in a cynical attempt to gobble up more market share without earning it first.

What’s the alternative?

The smart approach – but a rare one outside of the most enlightened of brands – is to clearly identify what you are for, and in doing so come to terms with what you are not.

KFC ultimately sells cheap chicken. Its cheapness is an absolutely essential attribute of what makes the company successful. The compromise is that its chicken is never going to be the highest quality. Consumers who like buying cheap chicken know this and live with it. Consumers who want quality, well, they don’t eat at KFC. And that’s just fine, let them be. Ironically, KFC is currently running a parallel campaign that mocks food provenance purists and the wider clean eating trend in a way that actually feels very right for the brand. But it sits very strangely with the ‘Whole Chicken’ campaign.

If that doesn’t sound appealing, there is one final option. Don’t like something about your brand? Change it – for real. Brands aren’t primarily built by advertising, they’re build by fact. If you want to change your positioning, then you have to change your business, not your messaging. If KFC pivoted to be all about chicken welfare then naturally it could take some pretty radical steps to prove it, just as if Cosmo wanted to attract blokes it could start writing stuff they want to read.

Of course, it would ruin its current brand position. But hey, it can always run an ad to fix that, right?