The Great American Showman: How KFC Reinvented Itself By Returning To Its Heritage

The Challenge

Although globally KFC enjoyed an astonishing $24 billion in annual sales in its 21,000 global restaurants, the brand had not been faring well in its home country. Store traffic was down and the brand had lost relevance since the death of its iconic founder, Colonel Sanders in 1980. The name itself was meant to distance the brand from Kentucky Fried Chicken as it had “lost the pride in fried,” as George Felix, director of advertising, KFC U.S., told MediaPost’s Brand Marketers Insider Summit in March 2018. Thus, the marketing team began a “journey of re-Colonelization.” (Here’s a link to the video presentation.)

The Execution

With its lead agency, Wieden & Kennedy, Felix and Steve Kelly, director of media and digital marketing, KFC U.S., and the rest of the marketing team went into the company’s underground archives and looked through thousands of boxes. The creative team sorted through relics to find out what drove the brand initially. They came across dozens of business cards that told the story of Col. Sanders’ past work history: He had been a mule tender in the Army, a lightbulb salesman, a ferry boat operator and, perhaps most amazingly, an amateur obstetrician. Said Kelly, “He had a bucket of lard, some gauze and shears in his truck. There are dozens of babies named Harland in Corbin, Kentucky,” the colonel’s base of operations. They found he really is the most interesting man in the world, for better or worse (he was disbarred as a lawyer for punching a client in the face for lying to him). 

To be relevant again, the brand had to get back to what it stood for when it was at its best. Sanders was front and center, whether it was the bucket, the restaurant or the advertising. Anything consumers saw, the colonel was there, standing for unrelenting quality as a ridiculous, over-the-top chicken salesman. It had its North Star figured out. It was not going to chase fads and hashtags. It would follow a philosophy Sanders had developed: Sales overnight, brand over time.

Three years ago, they ran a TV ad with actor Darrell Hammond (from “SNL”) dressed as the colonel and saying, “I’m Colonel Sanders and I’m back, America!” Since then, the marketing team has featured a rotating case of celebrities, with each bringing his own take on the character. They could have stuck with one actor but knew that, from a marketing standpoint, that would get old.

Just last month, they got sing Reba McEntire to play the colonel, not to make any social statement about gender but because anyone who embodies the values of the colonel should be qualified to play him. McEntire introduced the brand’s Smokey Mountain BBQ offering in a TV ad set in a crowded country-music bar.

Along with the TV campaign and a huge audience, the team now had the “sales overnight” piece. Now, it would go on to the “brand over time” part by branding everything to keep awareness and consideration for the brand high and by inviting new people who wouldn’t have considered KFC previously.

Among the new ideas they came up with were: 

  • Extra Crispy Sunscreen to bring awareness to  something more than half of U.S. consumers did not know, that besides the Original Recipe version of friend chicken, KFC also offered a second, Extra Crispy, recipe. The person representing the colonel at that time was actor George Hamilton, known for his deep tan, his “extra crispy” lifestyle. The product, to be given away, smelled like chicken and tasted liked sunscreen (with a long warning from Legal on the back). The marketing team thought they’d be giving them away for weeks; the entire supply was gone in an hour. With late-nighter Jimmy Fallon joking about the sunscreen, the brand had embedded the product into the culture, giving it 2.5 to 3 billion impressions in earned media.
  • For Mother’s Day, the brand’s No. 1 sales day each year, KFC worked with a novella writer to produce a 96-page book with a cover done by an artist who works for a bodice-ripper publisher. It showed a woman being swept off her feet by none other than Col. Sanders. When it hit Amazon, it went to the top of the charts. The reviews were about the literature and not, as the team had feared, about how it was a dumb marketing move.
  • Noting the resurgence of superheroes and comic books, the brand sought to tap into it. Because it is hard to simply step in and have fun without being branded a shill, the team went deep with real comic book nerds. It created a story arc, unearthing the most buried comic book entities, a rare prime universe and a character that people haven’t seen in a long time (Col. Sanders). Each book contained something readers would be shocked about. Comics Alliance named its first book Comic Book of the Year, followed by a long rant that a brand would even produce a comic book and a warning to writers not to let KFC do this again.
  • KFC designed a line of merchandise that didn’t suck. People come up to those wearing a yellow sweatshirt with “Fried Chicken USA” written on front and ask where they got them. They check the tag and it’s the colonel, says Kelly. Wherever the line was written about, including GQ and Esquire, the news peg was along the lines of “I can’t believe KFC didn’t fuck up,” he adds.
  • Deciding that Col. Sanders would love social media and jump on the newest tech to get his message out to the masses, the brand decided to partner with the direction app Waze to offer the colonel’s voice. He not only gives directions but is constantly trying to veer you off your course towards a KFC. 
  • Felix and Kelly each worked in a KFC kitchen as part of their job orientations. They saw how it takes 25 minutes to make a batch of Original Recipe chicken and wondered how they could convey this amazing point of difference to the masses. The result is “The Hard Way,” a KFC virtual reality escape room in which participants are locked in a test kitchen and given steps for making the product. Successful participants get certificates to become KFC cooks themselves. The brand team uploaded it to the Oculus Rift store and tried to get that company’s attention, to no avail. After thousands downloaded it, Oculus Rift called them. It was featured over the Christmas holiday for free.
  • KFC established a partnership with WWE after realizing participants are young families having a blast. When the event goes to commercials, everyone in the audience boos at having their entertainment interrupted. The marketing team came up with a commercial spilling out into the ring involving Col. Sanders and a Puppers Cluppers Chicken. The arena began chanting for the colonel, “which was more than we would have imagined,” said Felix. WWE sent them a video from a match in Thailand, in which actor Dolph Ziggler was the colonel and the audience there was rooting for KFC.
  • KFC’s social team and agency W&K were thinking through the smallest properties they had yet to brand and focused on KFC’s Twitter account. An idea took root that focused on the things that nobody ever looks at, among which was who follows KFC. The brand unfollowed everyone and then followed just 11 Spice Girls and a few guys named Herb (11 herbs and spices). Close to 3 billion impressions later, the stunt was featured on “Good Morning America” after a writer discovered the trick. He earned a painting of himself riding piggy-back on the colonel. 

The Results

  • People are considering KFC again. 
  • Brand consideration among Millennials is up about 40%. 
  • Fourth consecutive year same-store sales growth. 

Key Takeaways

  • Embrace your strengths and make them relevant.
  • Sales overnight, brand over time. Not either/or.
  • Branded everything. No place is off limits.
Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications