The Fiendish Plot of Popeye's Chicken

Well, that or an incredibly stupid mismanagement of a major promotion. I am writing about the GM-like imbecility of KFC’s now-infamous “Oprah Coupon” promotion, begun less than a week ago yet destined to make a laughing stock of the one-proud chain of chicken restaurants.

KFC is a division of Yum! Brands, a corporation of restaurants and fast-food purveyors, and one of the weaker lines in recent years. To counter its lagging position, the guys at KFC came up with two ideas to revive KFC’s fortunes. First, the company decided to introduce non-fried entrees to the menu, calling them Kentucky Grilled Chicken. This was actually a pretty good idea, a way to attract health-conscious customers and expand the menu.

The second idea was born during the Super Bowl. Another restaurant chain, Denny’s, got folks to give them another try with a time-tested promotion – a free breakfast to anyone who wanted one. Denny’s promotion had significant risk and cost, but it paid off big-time, and the company’s sales have been much improved since the promotion.

The guys at KFC saw the success at Denny’s. and decided the best way for them to get the same results was to run a similar promotion. But rather than wait until the next Superbowl, KFC worked out a venture with the reigning Queen of daytime television, Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey talked up the chain on her show and announced the promotion; a coupon for a free two-piece chicken dinner. Oprah also posted a link on her website to the coupon printout. The coupons could be printed May 5 and 6, and could be redeemed anytime at any KFC through May 19, excepting Mother’s Day.

Up to that point, this sounds like a great plan. A new product, announced on national television by a popular icon, with coupons to boot. What could go wrong?

From that point on, actually, almost everything.

In the first place, people began complaining from the start that they could not get the coupons to print. It should be noted that KFC neither acknowledged this problem, nor made any effort to address it. Of course, that’s probably because they had much bigger problems staring them in the face.

The geniuses at KFC decided to run this promotion, but without any coordination with the local restaurants and franchises. What’s worse, no one considered the likely response to the promotion, and the restaurants quickly ran out of the grilled chicken.

As a result, instead of a wildly successful promotion that could have raised KFC’s stature and impressed new customers, KFC’s promotion resulted in millions of people standing in line only to find their coupons were denied, no explanations were available, and the overworked staff was hostile and rude.

This being America, denial of the previously unknown right to free chicken led to reports of violence. KFC denied these reports of course, but right about now their credibility is such that anything they say is likely to work against them. In the same statement denying violence or angry protests, a company spokeswoman for KFC still tried to claim the company was prepared for the promotion.

The head office for KFC shut down its customer service lines and instead issued a press release promising that rainchecks would be sent to those unable to redeem their coupons. There’s a few problems with that claim, though. In the first place, customers already angry about having stood in line to be denied are now being told to go back to the restaurants, not for the promised food but to fill out forms to receive another coupon that may or may not arrive in a couple months, which may or may not be accepted at the restaurants, which in any case is less than what was promised on the Oprah show, and by the way the restaurant people I talked to today, say they have no heard anything about rain checks and there are no forms to fill out, meaning that if a customer believes KFC this time and tries to get a form to send off for the raincheck, they are likely to get the same rude reception they got the first time they came in on the matter. In other words, KFC is doing the things that guarantee maximum brand damage to themselves.

The very idea that KFC would plan, execute, and respond so badly to this situation is corporate suicide, an action that only makes sense if the marketing department and upper management at KFC were quickly and quietly replaced by operatives from Popeye’s chicken. Because the two things I can confidently claim after speaking to customers who tried to participate in the promotion, is that KFC has driven away a lot of customers, current and potential, and these folks will still go out and get chicken, which benefits Popeye’s more than anyone else. El Pollo Loco has played on the hype, promising to honor the KFC coupons on Mother’s Day, but the chain is too small to have planned and carried out a plan on this scale. As for Church’s chicken, if you have tried any of their “specials” or watched any of their ads (I know what ‘boring’ is), you would recognize that subverting the Colonel to advance their own market share is well beyond their capabilities.

Whatever it is, this whole campaign and collapse is just one more example of how poor planning and dependence on spin is eventually just self-destructive and futile.

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