Choosing the Right Franchise, Restaurant Franchises

Franchise Faux Pas

red_star_clip_art_12772Yum Brands, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut,  recently opened a new kind of fast food restaurant, a place selling the delicious Vietnamese sandwich known as “bahn mi.” They opened their first location in Dallas, Texas, a town with many Southeast Asian Americans, and the locals loved it.

Then controversy arose over their logo. The logo included, among other design elements, a five-pointed red star. This image offended the local Vietnamese community, reminding them of the fall of their country to Communist insurgents. The war in Vietnam brought hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, as well as neighboring Laos and Cambodia, and the Vietnamese American population today totals about 1.7 million people, many of whom clearly remember the horrors of war and refugee life.

Community leaders likened it to a pretzel shop with a swastika in the logo. An online petition quickly drew signatures, and Yum Brands removed the offensive logo from the shop: not just the sign, but the menu, the uniforms, everything.

What does an event like this say about a franchisor? Whether the franchisor you’re considering has gotten this amount of notoriety or not, it’s worth looking closely at insensitive actions that stir up bad press. If the franchise business opportunity you’re thinking about has any skeletons like this in its closet, pull them out and give them a good rattle before making up your mind.

The first question is, what caused the problem? It could have been as simple as a young designer who didn’t study Vietnam in history class. Images of Vietnam’s flag — a golden star on a red ground — along with popular culture images from the past could have inspired the use of the red star in someone who just didn’t know what it meant. In fact, since Yum is a global brand, the design work could have been done by someone for whom the red star has no negative historical associations.

But Yum Brands restaurants have a bit of a history with ethnic stereotypes:

The Kentucky Colonel for KFC isn’t included here because he was based on a real individual, but it’s clear that using stereotypical images as a quick visual signal for the kind of food being served is a technique familiar to the restaurants in this family.

On the other hand, Yum Brands quickly responded to the community’s concerns. Rather than suggesting that the people who objected were being oversensitive or standing on their right of free speech, they apologized, took quick action to remove the red star, and asked for direct input from the people making the complaint.

Their very modern (read transparent and respectful) handling of the crisis got them back on track. Social Mention, a social listening tool, reports that now, just a couple of weeks after the fracas, mentions of the Bahn Shop online are trending positive — four times as many positive mentions as negative ones, in fact.

It shouldn’t have happened, but handling a mistake well should help to balance the mistake when you’re deciding on a franchise investment.


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