Monday 18 May 2009

When Finger Licking Good Meets the Urban Pothole

An oft-stated observation made in connection with the economic crisis is that companies, when confronted with cuts in R&D, marketing, and advertising, have chosen first to cut their advertising budget as a means to bring expenses more in line with projected income. I would tend to believe that the reason for this lies less in the fact that advertising is less significant to the economic well-being of the company than is R&D or marketing, but rather that advertising is more akin to a current expense. As such, the absolute amount expended in a given short-term period can be calibrated to the general level of economic activity that is taking place, more or less, at the moment.

That said, the economic exigencies of the moment do seem to generate create ways to seek maximum advertising bang for the corporate buck. A real curiosity in this direction was noted in a short item that appeared in the April 20th issue of Business Week. Entitled "A Chicken in Every Pot(hole)", the item described how the corporate parent of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Yum!, expended $3,000 to fund the repair of 350 potholes in Louisville, Kentucky (if my memory serves me, Louisville is the corporate headquarters of Yum!). On each pothole, there appeared a message--"Re-furbished by KFC." Keeping with the low cost nature of this advertising campaign, the chalk-based advertising fades within a month or so. The item went on to note that the campaign has been extended to other towns, including Warren, Ohio and Chattanooga, Tennessee (for all of you non-Americans, an atlas might be in order to locate these two smallish towns, both of which are interestingly located in states that are contiguous with Kentucky).

Said the KFC spokesperson: "We thought we could refresh the streets and try a new form of advertising." Retorting with a degree of skepticism, brand consultant Laura Ries queried as follows: "What does deep-fried chicken have to do with potholes." Unfortunately, the Business Week item fails to consider the question further, and one can ask whether the item was brought simply as a short curiosity intended merely to entertain the reader rather than to consider how companies can successfully advertise despite the challenging economic times.

Okay, even if Business Week declined to engage in a serious consideration of the underlying issue involved, I feel compelled, if for no other reason that professional and intellectual curiosity, to offer several comments.

First, while the pothole cum civic message is characterized as advertising in the news item, it seems to me that it is more of a hybrid of sponsorship and advertising. By this mean I mean that the use of the KFC mark is connected with an activity which Yum! presumably wants to be connected, rather than merely an ad directed towards creating custom at the nearest KFC eatery. The comment by Laura Ries not to the contrary, it would appear that Yum! finds the connection between the KFC mark and good citizenry to be an attractive combination.


Second, the economic downturn does not mean that all forms of sponsorship have been put on hold. True, the trend has been to cut sponsorship of events at the mega level (especially in sports). Here, to the contrary, a modest amount of advertising expense was committed to funding a specific type of short-term sponsorship with presumed benefit to the overall perception of the brand.

Third, the ad/sponsorship campaign (if it can be called that) is local in character. Louisville is a mid-sized town best known for the Kentucky Derby; Warren and Chattanooga are even smaller. Perhaps the message of good corporate citizenry is more easily delivered in these secondary or tertiary urban settings. (Don't get me wrong, I was born and raised in another such town only 30 miles from Warren and there is a lot going for this kind of environment).

Thus, precisely because a major brand might choose to forgo a nationwide sponsorship campaign invites local experimentation. I suspect that there are large urban centers in the U.S. that would have been delighted to have had their potholes repaired. Assuming that this is impracticable from a budget point of view as a form of sponsorship, one wonders what a large company might to in very large urban center to achieve the same effect as the KFC-sponsored pothole covers in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.


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