During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt promised a chicken in every pot. This spring, KFC is promising its chicken stamp on every pothole.
Well, not all, but lots of them.
In March, the world's largest chicken chain approached the mayor of Louisville, Ky., where it's based, about paving some of the town's numerous potholes. The mayor happily accepted the offer, which came with one condition: Once filled, each pothole could be sprayed with the message "Re-freshened by KFC."
KFC public relations manager Rick Maynard said the message is designed to remind customers the chain's chicken is always fresh, never frozen. But in reality, KFC's asphalt altruism has a much different aim: to promote goodwill among current and potential customers.
Advertisers commonly call this "cause marketing," an effort by a for-profit business to help a nonprofit entity and, in the end, benefit both. According to David Bohan, chairman of Bohan Advertising and Marketing in Nashville, Tenn., ample research shows cause marketing is highly effective when the cause chosen is important to both the company and its customers. That gesture also should benefit a local entity, group or person.
"Most American consumers are very willing to change brands for a company that is supporting a cause they favor," said Bohan. "They're also willing to pay a premium for brands that are involved in issues that are important to them."
KFC's program met two key criteria: as a hometown company it helped locals enjoy a smoother ride; and it met a genuine need in Louisville to mend winter-scarred roads in a city conducting layoffs amid a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
Better yet, said Maynard, it's a welcome departure from the same-old "try this, buy this" advertising.
"People see us fixing a problem," said Maynard. "And they see it as a clever way to advertise when they're always overwhelmed with TV commercials and print ads."
It's also arguably cheap: Maynard said KFC spent about $3,000 filling some 350 potholes on Louisville's streets — the same amount it will spend touching up streets in other markets. Compared to the hundreds of millions it spends annually on traditional media buys, such an investment is mere chicken feed.
"We've gotten a lot of mileage out of this with news coverage alone," said Maynard, adding that the spray-on message will wash away with rain. "So far we've been asked by mayors of five other cities to come do their streets."
That's good because, as Bohan said, people believe corporations — especially large ones — should serve their customers beyond the sale of products. Citing a 2007 Cone Cause Evolution Study, he said 83 percent of all Americans believe companies should support nonprofit causes, and that 92 percent of customers favor companies that do. Women are especially supportive of companies that back causes they believe in, the study said.
Another Louisville business, O'Shea's Irish Pub, has seen cause marketing have a dramatic effect on long-term patronage, though Ginny Pittenger, the company's event coordinator, said her boss never mentions that reward. Owner Tom O'Shea "just has a huge heart" and insists all charitable efforts benefit local causes only "because he wants to make a difference in his community." The pub now fields so many requests for help that Pittenger had to develop official criteria for applicants.
When a local girl's legs were severed below the knees on an amusement park ride in 2007, O'Shea's held a Monday fundraiser that brought in $35,000 in sales, a day when the pub usually grosses $2,000. The pub donated its net profits — about $11,000 — to the girl's family to help with medical bills.
"We have people who tell us all the time they come here because of what we do in the community," said Pittenger. "Sure, we know it builds awareness of the restaurant and gets people in here to try our food and beer. But ultimately, it's just part of our mission to benefit the community."
Bohan warned that cause marketing has to be done carefully or it can backfire and become a cause célèbre. Given the ongoing tension between KFC and PETA, he said, the chicken chain is unlikely to risk the potential backlash of assisting a cause favored by the animal rights group.
"If someone is that much against you, you're not going to be able to get them to move toward you," he said. Cause marketing "is not one size fits all. You've got to work with something that's truly aligned with your values and your customers' values."