KFC’s CMO discusses how the brand’s iconic Colonel helped it get its groove back

Robe Lowe starring as the Colonel in one of the brand's ads

Reinstating the Colonel as the face of KFC has proven to be a boon for the fried chicken chain, which just a few years ago was facing a string of sales declines and store closures.

At the ANA Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando last week, KFC’s US president and chief concept officer Kevin Hochman shared the stage with Wieden + Kennedy executive creative director Eric Baldwin to discuss how the chain has managed to dig itself out of a rut over the past few years by going back to its roots and making its iconic founder the centerpiece of its marketing efforts.

During the talk, Hochman explained that the chain's troubles began back in 1980 when Colonel Harland David Sanders, the real-life founder of KFC, died. The Colonel, who’d gained a reputation as a dedicated fried chicken salesman and shameless promoter of his business, wielded much influence over the company up until his death.

When he died, Hochman said the chain began to lose its way and “did some really smart things that had some really bad, unintended consequences,” one of them being changing its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC in 1991. While Hochman said the name change was simply made to make consumers aware of the fact the company sells more than fried chicken, the switch ended up spurring a rumor that purported KFC was no longer allowed to use the word “chicken” in its marketing because it used genetically modified chickens.

Aside from false claims about its food, Hochman said the chain was also trying - and essentially failing - to connect with the coveted millennial demographic via ads that showed young people enjoying the brand’s products. With half-baked hashtags like ‘#HowDoYouKFC’ and rumors swirling about the quality of its food, the brand was failing to resonate with consumers in any real way.

Turning a new leaf

In 2015, the fried chicken purveyor’s parent company Yum Brands announced its plans to invest $185m in KFC in hopes of revitalizing the brand.

In addition to things like store renovations and new equipment, much of the investment was allotted to a revamped advertising strategy for the brand. Shortly after tapping Wieden + Kennedy as agency of record nearly three years ago, KFC rolled out a campaign starring comedian Darrell Hammond in the role of Colonel Sanders.

The decision to make the Colonel a mainstay of the brand’s advertising was largely based on his larger-than-life personality that Baldwin said the agency learned more about when diving deeper into some of KFC’s archives, like the fact that he didn’t start KFC until the age of 65 and had held a number of odd jobs beforehand.

As an advertiser, Baldwin said that he could also appreciate the Colonel’s penchant for advertising to different, and sometimes niche, audiences: for example, he said the agency came across an old radio ad that the Colonel voiced himself where he encouraged those participating in “celestial boating season” to enjoy some of the brand’s fried chicken.

“We weren’t sure what celestial boating season was,” he joked, “but we liked the idea that it was diving very deep into a specific genre. That’s something that was pretty modern and ahead of its time because that’s what we do today.”

Since rolling out the campaign starring Hammond, KFC has featured a number of other actors in the role of the Colonel Sanders. Rob Lowe, Norm Macdonald, and Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser are just a few of the actors who’ve played the brand’s founder in its ads.

Hochman said that KFC’s decision to have a new actor play the Colonel every few months is a deliberate one, as it wants to keep the campaign unexpected — and it doesn’t hurt that the press covers the brand each time a new Colonel is unveiled. During an interview with The Drum after his talk, Hochman said having a female or African-American Colonel down the line isn't out of the question.

“We have to make sure we keep this thing unexpected and fresh,” said Hochman during the interview. “I think when it started, a lot of people didn’t know what we were doing. And then when they started getting the joke, then it was like, ‘oh, this is really fun.’ The challenge is, how do you keep that unexpected.”

Beyond TV spots, the brand has also come out with a number of off-the-wall stunts and products as of late in hopes of keeping the brand top of mind. In the past year alone, KFC has come out with a steamy romance novel starring none other than Colonel Sanders, a clothing line Esquire proclaimed “does not suck,” and a candle that smells like fried chicken. The fast-food chain also managed to send one of its Zinger chicken sandwiches to space, a widely-covered stunt that Hochman said resulted in four billion impressions for the brand over a 14-week period.

While some of these stunts are created to promote a particular product, many of them are largely made to generate press coverage. Hochman said KFC sees correlations between media coverage of the brand and an uptick in sales.

“These stunts do keep us in the news,” he told The Drum. “If we’re in the news more, and the coverage is positive, we tend to get better sales. We see that.”

What's next

All of this has resulted in 12 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth for KFC, with Hochman stating that the chain is on track for continued growth over the next two quarters.

While the brand is seeing success at the moment, that’s not to say it doesn't have more work to do. As consumers become increasingly concerned with where their food comes from and its nutritional value, the chain is likely to face mounting questions about its offerings. The company has already begun to make strides in this area: earlier this year, it announced its plans to curb the use of antibiotics in its chicken supply.

When asked about the chain's menu items, many of which are high in calories and fat, Hochman pointed to the chain’s healthier options like grilled chicken and green beans as suitable options for calorie-counting consumers. He also said the average KFC customer only visits the chain a handful of times each year, and therefore isn’t consuming enough of its food to significantly affect their health or weight.

“The average customer eats [at KFC] about every 60 days. So if you’re a KFC customer, you’re coming back once every two months, six times a year. So you’re not getting obese from KFC if you’re the average customer,” he said.

As for what the brand’s social purpose is - a topic that research has found is becoming increasingly important to younger generations - Hochman told The Drum the brand has always been about bringing people together, whether it be after church on Sunday or during a football game. Hochman admits that millennials don't relate to that brand sentiment as much as generations above them, many of whom grew up with the brand and sometimes associate it with childhood memories.

While KFC hasn’t focused much on relaying that purpose to consumers in its latest marketing efforts, he said it’s something the brand may focus on down the line once it’s really found its footing.

“One day I think we can expand the brand to be more deliberate about its purpose,” said Hochman. “The purpose of the brand and why it exists is that it brings people together. Have we been deliberate about telling that story right now? No. I think we’ve been more focused on bringing back the iconic assets of the brand. I think over time, we will eventually get there, but I think we’ve got lower needs to fill in right now.”

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