During SA’s five-week-long lockdown three fast food industry competitors worked together to feed parts of the country. This is an industry that has traditionally been very competitive. However, during the lockdown, at a time when fast food chains had no access to income, Nando’s, KFC and McDonald’s worked together to feed vulnerable South Africans through the Joint Aid Management initiative in which each company used foodstuffs in their restaurants to feed the hungry.

While feeding the underprivileged is not a new concept for any of these three brands, what made this initiative different was that they collaborated and worked closely together.

Yellowwood strategy director Ntombizamasala Hlophe spoke at a recent FM Redzone digitised event – which was moderated by Arye Kellman, co-founder and chief creative officer at TILT – saying that this initiative ticked all the right boxes in terms of strategy. There is a global move towards industries collaborating for the greater good of, and to protect, their sectors. Also, which is perhaps a dynamic more unique to franchises, is their tendency to respond with more than just corporate social investment initiatives and to meet community needs. A voluntary industry collaboration such as this one, Hlophe added, tends to be more successful than one that is imposed, with a greater collective will to achieve its goal.

A purpose-driven consumer is becoming more typical, said Hlophe, adding that she expects there to be a bigger focus on how brands have served local consumers. “Despite all three of these brands having a global presence, they all managed to serve the needs of local communities in a local context.”

She predicts that fast food brands will in future need to over-reward consumers for choosing to support them, given more constrained disposal income.

April and May were devastating for the industry, conceded Doug Place, CMO for Nando’s SA. June was better, he said, as customers started to return. However, the industry needs to climb out of a deep hole. Those businesses that have anticipated a digitised world, he predicts, will take about six months to recover while that have not adopted digital practices will take significantly longer.

The Nando’s culture, he added, helped the company weather the recent storm. “From the outset our priority was to look after our people, including our franchisees and suppliers. We did not cut any salaries, and we gave our franchisees a royalty break until the end of August so that they could continue to pay their staff and suppliers. We also settled all our supplier bills. More important than profit, we want to be able to look back at this period in four or five years’ time and know that we did the right thing and were true to our philosophy of putting people first.”

When it reopened after the protracted lockdown Nando’s introduced kerbside delivery and repurposed its online platform.

Surviving this crisis has required internal alignment, regular communication and the ability to be nimble, said Suhayl Limbada, KFC marketing director. “We haven’t been able to take anything for granted during this time.”

Limbada said the company, through its KFC Care Trust, provided food parcels for all its employees, both restaurant and head office staff. 

While communicating the fact that it was safe to return to its outlets, Limbada said he believes it’s important to stick to the brand’s positioning and to continue to be distinctive, particularly at a time when consumers’ media consumption habits have changed fundamentally.

Citing the experience of KFC outlets in China, he says consumers don’t want to be flooded with messages of safety but are rather looking for an escape and a return to a semblance of normality.

Living the brand’s values was particularly important to McDonald’s during this period, said Greg Solomon, CEO of McDonald’s SA. “One of our culture points is ‘better together’. Ensuring staff were all provided for, the brand created care kits for all its people,” he said.

The big take-out:

KFC, McDonald’s and Nando’s put aside their competitive differences during lockdown to feed thousands of hungry South Africans.

While consumers are likely to be more aware of food safety and hygiene in the short term, he predicts that this heightened awareness will only be a short-term issue and that consumers will in the medium to long term revert to pre-pandemic habits as far as their consumption of fast food is concerned. “What we shouldn’t forget is that as an industry we have always had very high hygiene and safety standards in place and that has not changed recently.”

McDonald’s will continue to focus on its five-year strategy, which has not changed, he said. However, he did concede that it would be a long march out of the present situation and that this process would test leadership. 

Place said this was not a time for glib or sentimental communication given the often painful circumstances people were experiencing. In fact, he called glib and sentimental communication “deeply inappropriate”.  Instead, there needs to be a human response to a very human condition. Marketing done well stitches all the other business functions together.

What became clear through this crisis, he added, is that the government had very little idea of the contribution the fast food industry makes to the economy and to communities. Despite being competitors, he said the industry shares a common vision for SA to grow and to be prosperous.

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