KFC Ad Director on turning Col. Sanders into brand's 'James Bond'
In 2015, deep in a tunnel beneath the "lions and tigers and bears" of the Louisville Zoo where KFC stored its corporate archives, the chicken chain's ad agency struck branding gold. KFC executives had dispatched the promotional pros to that underground lair to explore whether anything in those 88 years of historic documents would help the brand find a way to get its' "groove back," after years of slumping sales.
"They (ad agency) came back to us and said, 'Congratulations! You're the proud owners of an absolutely iconic brand. ... Unfortunately, you walked away from that,'" relayed KFC U.S. Director of Advertising George Felix in his keynote Monday during this year's Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Louisville.
That icon was that "jack of all trades" in the white coat and string tie who started the chain in 1930, Col. Harland Sanders. After reviewing all the days and ways the good Colonel hawked the brand in its early days it was clear, as Felix said, this man was the brand.
"So it was all about bringing the colonel back, front and center. ..." Felix said. "And it sounds silly, but we thought we're going to treat Col. Sanders kind of like James Bond. ... If we embody all the spirit and values of the Colonel, we're going to get that brand back."
Hence began the brand's three-year journey back to Kentucky Fried Chicken, the brand of the man who was the ultimate showman, but also happened to make darn good chicken. The result is today that the chain's sales have not only soared, but so has the company's image.
In fact, the number of millennials who included KFC in one of those all important "brands to consider," grew nearly 40 percent in the single year from 2015 to 2016.
It was all part of the brand's renewed efforts to accomplish two very succinct, but well-honed goals: More sales daily and better brand perception over time.
"Embrace your strengths and make them relevant. Sales overnight. Brand over time," he said, emphasizing that both of those goals should be worked on furiously at all times.
To further those goals, KFC has also worked to brand everything - no matter how offbeat - to achieve that kind of "household name" status. Hence the array of unusual merchandise the brand has released over the years, from "Extra Crispy Sunscreen" and a hot, steamy romance novel, Tender Wings of Desire, to promote the brand around Mother's Day.
But it hardly ends there. These "centering" of the brand's goals and identity has also led to the wildly popular rotating celebrity colonels in the brand's promotions over the years. Saturday Night Live star Darrell got the ball rolling with what you might call the "back-from-the-dead" Colonel.
As the white-haired, white-suited Hammond said in that first ad, "Hi it's me -- it's Col. Sanders. ... I'm back America!"
Since then the brand has featured everyone from Extra Crispy Colonel (George Hamilton) to the current, first female colonel, Reba McEntire. The look is the same, but the faces change and the goals are always the same: More sales now, better brand perception long term.
The colonel-centric brand slant has even colored the brand's social media and branded goods activities. Remember, for instance, on KFC's Twitter account, the discovery that the brand had followed just a select few, namely five members of the rock group, Spice Girls, and six individuals named "Herb" ... or as one follower finally said on Twitter - 11 herbs and spices.
Overall, Felix relayed that this quirky, lighthearted approach has not only scored untold millions in free media globally, but also a collective overall "fun" feeling that just seems to go well with the whole idea of picking up a bucket of chicken.
He told the crowd that it has been an approach that has worked as well with the younger generations so sought out by brands today, as it did back in 1930 when the colonel got the drumsticks rolling. Proving, that even a fairly old fellow can have a very youthful take on life, career and the art of quick-service dining.