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Ode to KFC: Poetry Contest Doubles as Damage Control in China

How do you make people forget (or at least ignore) the fact that they’re eating “chicken” pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones? Why, you encourage them to enter a poetry contest, of course!

Late in 2012, Chinese media reported that the chickens provided to KFC by a few of its suppliers were raised to maturity in only 45 days thanks to the use of said substances. Disgusted consumers began turning away from the restaurants in droves, but instead of immediately issuing an apology, parent company Yum Brands simply stated that it was cooperating with investigators and that all of its products were safe.

Customers were apparently unconvinced, as KFC China‘s sales slid a whopping 41 percent in January, prompting the company to issue an official apology and take further action. China is the source of about half of Yum Brands’ revenue, and so a plan was hatched to get its reputation back on track in this all-important market.

The resulting PR/marketing campaign, which boasts the laughably epic name “Operation Thunder” (is Thor involved?) began in recent weeks with a mini-site detailing the steps the company will take to ensure the safety of its chicken and promising to keep customers informed about potential safety issues. But it’s the social media aspect of the campaign that really seems to have reached consumers.

The company encouraged customers to write poems that include the phrase, “The chickens are innocent,” humorously putting the blame for the chickens’ illicit drug use squarely on the farms themselves. The kicker? The writer of the best poem will win an iPad mini.

This may all seem like a fairly minimalist and slightly strange way to conduct a major damage control initiative, but “Operation Thunder” seems to be making an impact–KFC ended its China sales slide with flat numbers for February.

So here’s our question: from the outside, it would appear that Yum Brands broke most crisis communications rules–they didn’t immediately issue an apology, and when they finally decided to take action they did not follow the “hard and fast” model. Yet their plan seems to be working. So are immediate and full-scale damage control campaigns really worth the cost? Did Yum simply get lucky with its last-minute efforts, or is this evidence of a cultural divide in the way customers perceive brands? What do you think?

To express our take on these questions, we wrote a Haiku:

Antibiotics

The chickens are innocent

Yum Brands got lucky

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