While it may not have the reach and influence of its closest competitors, Chicken Licken remains a marketing case study for how so-called challenger brands should operate.

And its recent success is largely due to MD Chantal Sombonos-Van Tonder, who tops the just-released Loeries rankings as the country’s leading marketer.

Last year she made history as the first second-generation winner of the marketing leadership award, an honour her late father, George Sombonos, the founder of the business, received in 2013.

The story goes that Sombonos bought Chicken Licken’s fried chicken recipe from the owner of a fast-food outlet in Texas for $1,000 and introduced it to the local Dairy Den operation. Later he opened the first Chicken Licken restaurant in 1981 on the site of the Dairy Den, and the rest is history.

Chicken Licken is the now the largest fried chicken franchise in the world that is not US-owned. Sombonos died in 2016 and his daughter took over.

She tells the FM that marketing during the pandemic has been challenging, to say the least. "We’ve had to adapt and be nimble in terms of changing decisions and plans based on what our consumers need [and] what is possible within the lockdown restrictions as well as budget restraints, while ensuring that we do not change our brand tone or positioning."

The brand has a highly engaged social audience who, once the lockdown began, were "begging for us to open or sell to them in other ways … unfortunately we could not oblige, but we kept on interacting with them socially and even created and served them a brand advert tapping into their actual social behaviour during this time".

Chantal Sombonos-Van Tonder. Picture: Supplied
Chantal Sombonos-Van Tonder. Picture: Supplied

That empathetic approach resulted in a "dramatic increase in sales once the stores reopened, albeit only for takeaways".

Sombonos-Van Tonder is a great believer in the power and efficacy of creative advertising. Her current agency is Joe Public. But has there been a need to change tone in the past year?

"I don’t think we’ve necessarily changed tone in our advertising but rather we developed a campaign during the hard lockdown last year which leveraged everyday South Africans who had turned lockdown into a social art form and built themselves up through the hardships. In so doing, we were able to highlight these people as well as their lockdown antics that had gone viral and turn it into an optimistic film around their perseverance when times get tough."

Successful advertising has to be built on a relationship of absolute trust with one’s ad agency. "The trust we have in the partnership between myself and Joe Public is very much aligned as to how we intend on moving this brand forward … They’re in tune with the market and the environment, and are open to the changes and challenges that we face together."

Sombonos-Van Tonder believes few local brands have managed to rise above themselves during the pandemic in terms of outstanding marketing.

"I think it’s a pity, since this is exactly the time when brands should be pushing the envelope to, at the very least, remain relevant to struggling consumers. Internationally, I remain impressed by the work of Nike and Coke, which both made strong statements when they deployed their communication spend into the support of people in need."

She says this year will be tough as marketers have to do more with less money. Her advice is simple. "Speak authentically as a brand. Don’t speak just to be seen or heard in a space that may be trending or topical; it needs to be relevant to you. As a marketer, you need to listen to the environment, and, more importantly, your market. That way, you aren’t showing up when they don’t want you but rather are being considered when it matters.

"The buzz word over the past year has most definitely been ‘agile’ but it’s for a good reason and not only during a pandemic. If something doesn’t feel right, change it; if it’s not authentic, don’t do it, and trust your gut, it’s almost always right."


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