From Meme to Dream: How The KFC Crocs Sold Out in 30 Minutes

Jonah Malin

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Maybe people love the smell of fried chicken every time they step outside. Maybe the joke was funny enough to drop $60 on a pair of poultry-inspired clogs. Perhaps there is real appreciation for fried chicken collaborations in high fashion.

Whatever the reason, enough people were convinced that the KFC Crocs release was worth the investment that they sold out instantly.

If you read the comments on different social media outlets, consumers who struck out trying to grab a pair are furious after facing several landing page bugs. And for those hoping to quickly buy them off the secondary market, good luck. The resale value is already outrageous, with some eBay sellers listing the unique footwear item for $500. Yes, you read that right.

“Nobody asked for it, but they made it.” — Irene Jiang, Business Insider

I’ll be the first to admit that I thought this marketing campaign would fail. Yet here I am, thoughtfully analyzing KFC’s chicken-scented clogs to understand why it was so successful.

If you aren’t familiar with the backstory, Croc’s debuted a new platform version of their clog design at New York Fashion Week in February for a streetwear food-inspired collection. It was announced around this time that limited-edition KFC Classic Clogs would be available to the general public in the spring, presumably pushed back to July 28th due to the pandemic.

From a marketing and brand perspective, this collaboration demonstrates how much work goes into the ideation, creation, launch, and execution of a successful marketing campaign.

Years of strategic insights, creative endeavors, and a few risks led to the Crocs marketing team absolutely nailing their pre-launch strategy to build hype and align their brand mission with a new generation of consumers.

Here’s what we can learn from the KFC Crocs collaboration.

An Original Recipe For Success

When Terence Reilly joined the Crocs team in 2015 as CMO, he knew the perception. Crocs had been tormented online for years through memes, relying on a smaller group of consumers who preferred practicality over comfort.

Reilly essentially had two options: attempt to reinvent the silhouette based on current footwear trends or stick with what Crocs had and rethink their approach to marketing.

As Reilly said:

“That is our Big Mac, that is our Coca-Cola. We launched a campaign that was focused on making the classic silhouette an iconic symbol. Because we know it’s always been a polarizing brand. But remember, when you’re polarizing, there’s one side of the polarization that loves you.”

Instead of alienating their core fans with a frantic redesign, Crocs chose to continue providing a comfortable, affordable, and easily customizable product. As youth culture slowly intersected with streetwear fashion, flat sneakers became the style of choice — and Crocs became relevant to a new wave of interested consumers.

Here’s the key: The Crocs marketing team accurately defined their challenges and stayed true to their brand. Now they have a diverse foundation of loyal fans who allow Reilly to be flexible in the types of collaborations he chooses. Had they given into a product redesign early on, the KFC clogs never would have happened.

Campaign Tactics

The KFC Crocs campaign utilized several classic marketing strategies to build hype for the clogs’ release. They made sure fans knew that it would be a limited product, driving social conversations to generate buzz around the brand. This also created media intrigue, with major outlets like Business Insider, Cosmopolitan, and CNN covering the launch.

Crocs knew that the success of the KFC collaboration rode on the influence of a younger demographic who are heavily invested in digital mediums, influenced by celebrity partnerships, and interested in Instagram-worthy streetwear, fashion, and food, all of which defined the direction of their strategy.

Let’s dive into a few of the tactics that worked best.

Social listening

Through several social listening tools, Crocs discovered where their younger audience lived online, effectively engaging when it made sense.

To “de-meme” the brand, Reilly brought most of the marketing in-house. This move developed an enthusiastic, united front that could swiftly deal with the public-facing promotion. Instead of letting internet trolls shine a negative light on their products and taking the punches as they had historically done, Crocs amplified popular tweets, joined conversations online, and proactively took control of the narrative.

When Ruby Rose was on her Instagram story asking followers which pair of Crocs she should buy, Crocs called her representatives and released the Ruby Rose collaboration. When Post Malone tweeted, “u can tell a lot about a man by the jibbits on his crocs,” the brand contacted his team and released four limited edition collections.

Both of these partnerships came from organic interactions.

Rather than throwing money at sponsors who have no interest in their brand, Crocs listened and waited. When an opportunity arose, their team mobilized to take advantage of heightened positive awareness and celebrity endorsement. This has led to massive growth on social media, providing a substantial platform to promote their new collaborations.

Crocs’ recent Instagram post announcing the KFC shoe release has over 46,000 likes (far higher than their average) while KFC’s post sits at just over 30,000 likes. Finding where your audience lives online and what they are saying is essential to keeping tabs on your brand's reputation.

Branded hashtags

For social listening to work, you need a way to monitor the results.

With a campaign that invested so heavily in digital awareness, it made sense for the KFC Crocs team to design a hashtag that is completely unique to the product launch and post-promotion. On the landing page, the brands are promoting #KFCCrocs which takes you to an Instagram feed of user-generated content.

This is a simple but effective way to market the product without being overly promotional. Other companies like Thrive Market have done this, which uses the hashtag #letsthrive to highlight users and increase engagement between the brand and customers.

Influencer marketing

Unsurprisingly, the next step involves a Kardashian.

Crocs sent a few pairs of the platform Crocs to Kim Kardashian and other select celebrities. Showing them off in a giant glass case on her Instagram Story, Kim Kardashian alone generated hundreds of thousands of impressions.

To debut the shoes during New York Fashion Week, KFC and Crocs used artist MLMA, a rising Instagram celebrity with over 1 million followers. In a promotional video for the collaboration, MLMA uses tongs to remove both pairs of Crocs from a deep fryer. The unique blend of influencers who have dedicated fans in different demographics helped the collaboration reach a wider audience.

Reilly has noted in several interviews that celebrity endorsements are pivotal to the brand's growth — and it shows.

Creative messaging

I have to imagine the creative and content teams had fun with this.

Delivering clever taglines like “Put These On Your Bucket List” and “Not for human consumption,” KFC and Crocs acknowledged the avant-garde nature of this collaboration without turning it into a joke. Even the two “Jibbitz” charms made to resemble and smell like fried chicken that came with a purchase played into the overall theme.

What’s interesting about the copy on the Crocs landing page is that it more closely resembles KFC’s messaging than Crocs. It’s almost as if Crocs saw this as a golden opportunity to roll out a new identity that can be utilized in future campaigns.

Most of the advertisements I have seen were clean and straightforward, again building hype for the shoe release. The product itself is headline-worthy, and I think it was the right move to keep print and digital ads simple.

Final Thoughts

As someone who works in the world of digital marketing and communications, I spend a lot of time analyzing different marketing campaigns to learn what works and what doesn’t.

For the KFC Crocs collaboration, here are a few key takeaways:

  • Brands need to be loyal to themselves before trying to gain respect from their audience. Crocs utilized their classic silhouette for this campaign rather than attempting something new — a detail fans old and new appreciated. A product only goes as far as an audience will take it.
  • Crocs spent years working to reverse its public image by refining its internal marketing efforts and taking an in-depth dive into the challenges and opportunities surrounding its brand.
  • Crocs’ CMO utilized marketing campaign tactics that are both cutting-edge and trial-proof. His team is riding the wave of digital trends without trying to do too much. They understand where their audience lives online and wisely leveraged New York Fashion Week to turn a volatile product into a highly anticipated release.

Whether you think this was an iconic collaboration or a joke that took advantage of “hype culture”, it’s hard to ignore the facts: an increase in sales, high social media engagement, and enough confidence to line up Liberty of London, the historic British department store, as the next Crocs venture.

The KFC Crocs marketing campaign proves how important it is to do all of the necessary pre-work, focusing on your internal team and micro-community before building out. As Reilly said, “Our fans want to see what’s next. That’s an exciting thing for us and for them.”

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I am a content strategist, career advice author, and contributing writer based in Washington, DC. Join me as I explore health & wellness, productivity, philosophy, and life. Find me @Beyond Definition // Medium // Ladders // jonahmalin.com/barelyweekly

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