The initial version of my essay is set out below followed by my tutor’s feedback.
Why didn’t the FCKing chicken cross the road? A tale of redemption.
On 14 February 2018, the UK fast-food chain KFC changed its raw materials logistics contract from Bidvest to DHL. Under the new arrangements, KFC rationalised a six-depot logistics solution to a single depot solution.
At around 01:40 on 14 February, a fatal accident involving seven vehicles closed the M6 near the DHL warehouse in Rugby. With lorries becoming stuck in traffic as soon as leaving the single DHL depot and with no other locations available to backfill the situation, the chicken shortages began. By 16 February KFC outlets began to close, and by 18 February few of the 900 restaurants remained open.
While operational matters quickly improved, the restaurant closures presented a significant reputational crisis for KFC. As KFC itself said ‘A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal’.
Faced with this reputational crisis, KFC settled upon two communication objectives: to publicly apologise for the inconvenience caused and to explain to customers, franchisees and suppliers that a resolution was in hand.
KFC’s first issue was to decide which media type would best serve its communications objectives. It believed that print media benefited from higher trust metrics and therefore decided to run full-page adverts in the Sun and the Metro on 23 February with a combined readership of 6 million.
KFC’s London advertising agency, Mother, devised an innovative advertising message. The approach proved to be a masterstroke.
Analysis of the image
In his essay’ Rhetoric of the Image’, the French semiologist Roland Barthes interprets an advert by the Italian food manufacturer Panzani. Barthes suggests that the advert contains three message types: the linguistic message (words contained within the caption or surrounding the image), the non-coded (denoted) iconic message and the coded (or cultural) iconic message.
The linguistic message
Barthes identifies two parts to the linguistic message: the anchor and the relay. The purpose of the anchor he suggests is to restrict or corral the viewer’s interpretation of the polysemic image. A relay, on the other hand, can be thought of as sitting alongside the image, reciprocally assisting its understanding.
Faced with its client’s reputational crisis, the advertising agency Mother proposed an advert incorporating humility, humour and honesty.
Mother proposed using two anchors in this case: the attention-grabbing social media term ‘FCK’ (being an acronym of the corporate brand anagram ‘KFC’) and the words ‘We’re sorry’. Viewed together, the two anchors communicate the apology in straightforward, everyday, plain language.
The relay uses humour, humility and honesty to expand upon the anchored apologies and explain that a resolution is underway.
The non-coded (denoted) iconic message
Barthes argues that we innocently read the non-coded message, that is to say, the photograph itself, using the innate rules by which humans process images. At this level of interpretation, the message is non-coded. The photo of a KFC chicken bucket represents a KFC chicken bucket. It is upon the denoted image that the originator seeks to layer in the connoted cultural messages.
The coded (or cultural) iconic message
Barthes explains that a photograph is an overall sign comprised of a signifier (the image itself or elements thereof) that, to each of us, individually, signifies something (the signified).
Thinking in terms of Terry Barratt’s ‘original context’ we can understand the intentions of KFC. The company needed to be seen to accept responsibility by putting forward a candid, honest apology for the mess. Using Barthes methodology, we can review how this was achieved from the coded iconic message viewpoint.
- The purpose of a KFC container is to hold chicken. Therefore, an empty KFC container (the signifier) signifies that there is no chicken available (the signified) and that KFC has FCKed up (the sign).
- The container appears to be on a dirty floor with spilt crumbs surrounding it thereby signifying that it has fallen. The message is that KFC has ‘dropped the ball’.
- The KFC problem, in this case, was primarily a UK issue and the message, therefore, targeted a UK audience. The dirty floor, unacceptable from a UK consumer’s viewpoint, signifies to the target audience poor standards thereby symbolising that KFC has not done the job correctly.
- The scratched floor signifies a lack of investment and cost-cutting, perhaps indicating that standards have been allowed to drop for cost reasons.
- The red background signifies hell (as also mentioned in the relay) and indicates that this has been a disaster for KFC and others involved.
- The juxtaposition between the (relatively) clean KFC container and the dirty floor possibly alludes to the fact that KFC isn’t entirely to blame and that the fault might lie with an external source.
- The R Symbol ® adjacent to ‘FCK’ signifies that KFC has trademarked the ‘FCK’ term. This is not the case. But its use here, however, signifies that this is an official communication. The company is taking the matter seriously.
- The Colonel Saunders image on the container, a fundamental part of KFC branding, shows a serious, dependable and trustworthy figure. It is saying ‘Trust us. We can fix this’.
- The fallen container – on the floor rather than, perhaps, a table – may signify that KFC has reached the lowest point. Things will only get better.
At the height of the crisis, KFC was facing a reputational catastrophe. Its response, appearing in just two UK newspapers, generated more than 700 press articles and TV discussions. Together with the ensuing social media exposure, estimated viewings of the campaign exceeded one billion.
So, by taking a proactive, candid and humble approach, KFC turned a disastrous situation around to the point where it’s Brand Impression Score rose to a point higher than the pre-crisis level.
Very FCKing clever.