The KFC Coupon Disaster of 2009 is an example of a great advertising idea that went horribly awry. It’s not the first time I’ve written about the strange exploits of KFC advertising. In 2006, KFC was advertising targeting extraterrestrials.
The KFC Coupon Disaster of 2009 illustrated the great cosmic power of Unlimited and Free. Unfortunately, it was implemented so poorly that it made headlines at the time and illustrated how a powerful a promotional tool like “free” can be.
Learn how to give away something for free without destroying your business and your brand in this post.
In the immortal words of Stan Lee, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In other words, powerful promotional tools like free must be used properly.
Unfortunately, the 2009 KFC Coupon Debacle is an example of a great advertising idea implemented without planning and thought. As a result, this disastrously destructive campaign put enormous financial pressure on franchise owners.
KFC Coupon Disaster
Hindsight is always 20/20. With that said, there were some rookie mistakes made in the 2009 KFC Coupon Debacle.
The restaurant chain KFC was formerly known as Kentucky fried Chicken. Years earlier, the company decided to distance itself from the word “fried.” To put distance between the chain and their own version of the “F” word, they “condensed” the name of the chain to KFC. I guess they thought we would eventually FORGET that the “F” in KFC stood for fried. Maybe they thought that we would think that it stood for something else – such as Kentucky FABULOUS Chicken.
Come to think of it, maybe they weren’t just trying to distance themselves from only the word “fried.” Maybe they also wanted distance themselves from Kentucky as well. (I personally love Kentucky. It’s a gorgeous state.) As is often the case, it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on with this once great brand.
This isn’t the first time Kentucky Fried Chicken has me trying to figure out why they made the decisions they have about the brand. The Kentucky Fried Chicken brand is one near and dear to my heart When I was growing up, KFC was my family’s Sunday meal tradition. Years later, when I think about “mom’s” cooking, it’s the Colonel’s famous recipe that I remember. Even so, I have not been to a KFC in ages. The menu items have too much fat, carbs, and calories. The last time I ate there, I was sick for a day.
In an attempt to try to regain business from health conscious consumers (like me), KFC began offering grilled chicken. Adding a “healthy” chicken item was a LONG overdue move. However, the way in which KFC handled the debut of this item is positively epic in it’s ineptitude.
KFC Epic Ineptitude
KFC decided to debut this new menu item by offering a FREE chicken dinner compliments of Oprah Winfrey. Having the then queen of all media plug their new menu item was quite an accomplishment.
The Oprah KFC promotion included two free pieces of KFC’s new grilled chicken, two sides and a biscuit. This was literally a full meal deal. Note: Everyone involved kind of overlooked the overall nutritional profile of this promotion. This full meal deal was still rich in fats and carbs.
Free is an extremely powerful promotional tool that must used sparingly and properly.
At the time it illustrated the power of Oprah. When Oprah Winfrey promoted the coupons on her popular talk show, everybody jumped on board.
Let me be clear:
THE PROBLEM IS NOT THAT THE COUPON WAS PROMOTED ON THE OPRAH SHOW. THE PROBLEM WAS THE CAMPAIGN WAS POORLY PLANNED AND POORLY CONSTRUCTED!!!
If you’d like to avoid making the ROOKIE mistakes made by a national ad campaign, use these quick, simple, easy to use rules on harnessing the power of FREE to promote your business:
RULE #1 of FREE: YOU GOTTA HAVE LIMITS
The KFC Free Chicken Coupon broke this rule in more ways than one.
First, by offering the coupons via Oprah Winfrey’s website rather than via a traditional coupon, they were offering an UNLIMITED number of coupons. Someone should have introduced the execs in charge of this campaign to how many “customers” Google services each and every day.
Had KFC printed out the coupons, they could have maintained control over the number of coupons distributed. Remember, this is before the age of smart phones. People had to print this coupon to redeem it. By offering the coupon via the internet, the search term “Oprah Winfrey KFC coupons” quickly rose to the one of the most popular search terms at the time.
The website traffic estimator Alexa (not your AI virtual assistant… Amazon’s traffic spy tool) offered this tasty bit of information about the effect of the coupon on traffic to Oprah.com
Look at that huge spike in conjunction with the free KFC coupon!!! Impressive!!!
As a result, millions of people printed out MULTIPLE coupons for redemption. At the time, KFC didn’t realize that, unlike a traditional coupon, there was no way to control the number of coupons printed by consumers. Everyone with a computer and a printer just started printing away. If you didn’t have a computer and a printer, then you asked someone who did to do this for you.
There was no way to control the number of coupons redeemed by consumers.
This isn’t an uncommon problem when offering freebies. This is why when smart business owners put limits on “free” offers.
Which brings us to the RULE #2 OF FREE that KFC broke:
Rule #2 of FREE: DON’T GIVE AWAY TOO MUCH FOR FREE
Free is a powerful promotional tool. Want a promotion to go viral? Offer something of value for free.
Establishing conditions for the offer is just good business. Sometimes, it’s as simple as the consumer needs to provide a name and valid email address. This means that customers are providing “permission to market” in exchange for the freebie. It also means they’re not getting something for absolutely nothing. Instead they’re “paying” by turning over their contact information.
Another way to keep from giving away too much for free is to require an additional purchase. KFC could have offered the free chicken with the purchase of two sides and a drink. Would it have “diluted” the “power” of the free meal deal. OF COURSE !!! But that’s the point.
The KFC Coupon Disaster Abruptly Ends
In response to the overwhelming response which was threatening to bankrupt franchisees, KFC quickly launched a new television ad. In the ad, KFC they announced the coupons were no longer valid. They then apologized for making a promise they had no intention of fulfilling.
Needless to say, this upset consumers. Advertising builds trust, but this debacle did the opposite. People everywhere were complaining about the “raw deal” associated with the KFC coupon. At the time, I even heard a radio announcer griping about it on air.
Did KFC pay for that announcer to talk about them? Of course not. What business exec actively pursues NEGATIVE publicity? Oh that’s right, that’s what the execs running the KFC campaign did.
Maybe there is such a thing as BAD publicity
All publicity is good publicity. So they say, but I can’t see an upside to this. The television spot they ran featured the CEO proclaiming what a “hit” the promotion was. He even bragged about “how much America LOVES KFC grilled chicken.”
Um, I hate to be the bearer of bad news – but people are NOT talking about the chicken. They’re talking about the ineptitude of your company. There’s a BIG difference between the two.
- The Evil Beet posted an article titled Oprah Destroys KFC
- The Consumerist wrote about it too
- The Big Money wrote, “Oprah’s KFC Catastrophe”
- Even the Huffington Post wrote “Free Offer Creates Nightmare”
The articles above were once links to just a few of the articles at the time. They are all gone except for this one. The only saving grace was that social media was in its infancy at the time. I’m pretty sure this debacle would have killed KFC if it happened today.
A great advertising campaign can cause a well run business to prosper. A great advertising campaign can result in a poorly run business failing more quickly Fortunately for KFC, the KFC Coupon Disaster of 2009 has almost been completely forgotten.
I beg you not to forget. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.