A few years ago KFC was watching sales decline and closing stores; now the fried chicken trade is booming again. So how did all this happen?
At last week’s ANA Masters of Marketing, KFC’s US president and CCO Kevin Hochman joined Wieden + Kennedy, KFC’s advertiser of choice, to discuss how exactly the brand make such a spectacular comeback.
According to Hochman, a number of factors sparked the chain’s decline: the death of the original founder, the larger-than-life Colonel Harland David Sanders who promoted the company shamelessly for years; the name change to KFC in 1991, which sparked (false) rumours that the brand couldn’t use the word ‘chicken’ in marketing materials any more as it served GM chickens; and, in Hochman’s own words, a total failure to connect with young people.
In 2015, KFC’s parent company Yum Brands announced plans to invest $185m to revitalise the dying brand, acquiring advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy to help along the way.
The first step was to bring back the Colonel, first in the form of comedian Darrell Hammond and later as Rob Lowe, Norm MacDonald and Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser.
The original Colonel’s exuberant, extroverted and often eccentric persona was the basis for his return; diving into the KFC archives, the creative team unearthed gems such as an ad voiced by the Colonel himself encouraging those enjoying ‘celestial boating season’ to sample his fried chicken.
“We weren’t sure what celestial boating season was,” said Hochman, “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.”
Hochman continues that the brand is determined to keep the brand fresh and unexpected, and frequently changing the Colonel helps with this. Away from TV advertising, plenty of quirky stunts have kept the viral news wheel turning, from romance novels featuring Colonel Sanders and fried chicken-scented candles and flavoured nail varnish to sending a Zinger chicken sandwich into space.
“These stunts do keep us in the news,” Hochman told The Drum. “If we’re in the news more, and the coverage is positive, we tend to get better sales. We see that.”
Resulting in 12 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth for KFC, and continued growth forecast for the next two quarters, the strategy is clearly working, and shows a fascinating insight into how, with the right attitude and some big ideas, a brand really can turn its fortunes on its head.
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