January 22, 2022

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Will Colonel Sanders survive KFC’s marketing overhaul?


The pandemic introduced additional challenges, as chains adapted to unprecedented demand for online ordering, delivery and takeout. KFC was well-suited to meet some but not all of these challenges. A loyalty program, which can deliver personalized offers to shoppers and drive various consumption occasions, is still in the development stage at KFC in the U.S. That is expected to be one point of emphasis for the brand in the months ahead. McDonald’s, also considered something of a late arrival to quick-service loyalty, signed up more than 20 million members over its first three months, illustrating the potential of such a program.

Industry experts see KFC as a durable brand whose advantages include the fact that it sells its food by the bucket, making it well-suited for families. However, consumer surveys identify areas of weakness: Its kids’ menu “is a red flag” that has limited its appeal to high-spending young parents, said Robert Byrne, director of consumer insights for Technomic, the restaurant consulting firm. In Byrne’s view, smaller brands like Raising Cane’s present a challenge to KFC by having done a better job of “adultifying” a similarly craveable menu that is winning with younger consumers. “These are savvy customers who know their options,” Byrne said. “They don’t want the junior version of what Mom and Dad like.”

According to Technomic, 31% of KFC’s frequent guests are millennials compared with an average of 40% in the broader quick-service restaurant industry. KFC also draws fewer wealthy diners: 31% of its frequent guests have household incomes in excess of $75,000 compared to an industry average of 41%.

Menu opportunities

According to John Gordon, a San Diego-based industry consultant, KFC’s biggest opportunity is in its menu, saying it needs more innovative and profitable choices that will inspire franchisees to get behind the sales effort. Gordon sees the new chicken sandwich as one such option, “but they still need to build on its potential.”

Doug Reifschneider, an independent marketing consultant with Chief Outsiders, a fractional CMO provider, agrees, saying “innovation is the lifeblood for quick-service restaurants.”

KFC is making up for lost sales due to restaurant closures during the pandemic: In the third quarter, U.S. same-store sales climbed by 4% on the strength of its new chicken sandwich and the boost of group eating occasions.

KFC totaled $4.7 billion in U.S. systemwide sales in 2020, making it the 14th-largest restaurant chain, just ahead of fast-growing rival Popeyes, which rung up $4.6 billion in sales from 2,600 U.S. locations, Technomic figures show. Chick-fil-A is the largest U.S. chicken fast feeder, with $13.7 billion in sales in 2020, according to Technomic estimates.

W+K’s legacy

KFC had suffered through a decade of declining sales when Wieden+Kennedy began working for the brand in 2015. The partnership reunited counterparts of the successful Old Spice campaign for Procter & Gamble; KFC’s chief marketer, Kevin Hochman, was a former P&G executive and had worked with Baldwin and Bagley on that effort.

Wieden made a renewed Colonel Sanders the centerpiece of its marketing strategy, reintroducing the character in a commercial starring Darrell Hammond of “Saturday Night Live” that aired for the first time in May of 2015.

Around 80% of viewers said they loved the new ad. Everyone else hated it.

“But you know what, that’s better than 100% being indifferent and that really is what’s important,” Yum Brands’ then-CEO, Greg Creed, said at the time. “We had lost relevance in the U.S.: 60% of millennials had not eaten KFC. So I’m very excited that this work is really distinctive and disruptive. And I am actually quite happy that 20% hate it, because now they at least have an opinion, they’re actually talking about KFC and you can market to love and hate, you cannot market to indifference.”

Wieden cleverly kept the campaign fresh behind a rotating cast of actors portraying the Colonel in increasingly memorable activations: In one, the Colonel was rendered as a bearskin rug; in another he hosted a dinner party as Robocop. He was a romance novelist and an astronaut. The campaign platform introduced a bit of diversity and even included a female Colonel (Reba McEntire) and a Latino Colonel (Mario Lopez). Ads also reemphasized the brand’s legacy strengths, including its “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan and distinctive red-and-white-striped design.

The effort helped to generate years of growing sales and relevancy for KFC.

Colonel concerns?

Yet some still wonder if the Colonel has run his course. “KFC has complicated issues to address,” said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. “One of the real questions is what do you do with the Colonel Sanders character? Is it as inclusive and diverse as it needs to be to connect with audiences today?”

New attention on social and racial justice arising during the pandemic has encouraged numerous brands to overhaul legacy associations that could be seen as insensitive, or based on outdated values. Consumers in the meantime are increasingly supporting brands they feel reflect their own beliefs.

The character is based on Harland David Sanders, a real-life businessman who developed a chicken recipe at a Kentucky restaurant and granted its first franchise in 1952. “Colonel” was an honorary title granted to him by Kentucky Gov. Lawrence Weatherby in 1950. He served as the chain’s spokesman and public brand face for decades, providing an enduring, regal but folksy charm.

“The Colonel harkens back to another time, to the South and to Southern aristocracy. You could put him in the same class of Aunt Jemima; characters that promote classic stereotypes that we don’t want to see today,” Calkins said. “So do you try and change the imagery or distance yourself? It’s a question we’ve seen a lot of brands wrestle with, and one I would suspect they are dealing with in the agency review.”



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