Does KFC’s Marketing Work?

A press release from September 4thgot me thinking. And that is saying something, given press releases to me are an archaic form of communications. It proclaimed:

KFC is offering a college donation to the first child born on the Colonel’s birthday (Sept. 9, 2018) named Harland…. As a birthday gift from the Colonel and KFC, the first baby Harland will receive $11,000 (in honor of KFC’s 11 herbs and spices, of course!) to go towards their college education, setting them up for future success.

It got me thinking about KFC’s marketing. Is it just a series of goofy events and preposterous merchandise or is there a deeper strategy? And is any of this activity truly helping sell product? Before I answer those questions, I have a revealing confession.

I love KFC.

The brand I mean. I eat the product only once or twice a year. It is a tradition on one occasion at my namesake golf tournament, The Swystonian Institute Golf Classic. On the kick-off night, we order up more KFC than we possibly can finish, then we finish it. It tastes fantastic, but one gorge generally holds me over for the year. In my youth, it was the best damn hangover food. I treasured it cold the next day.

Friends and I have always joked about the absurdity of the brand. The Colonel’s backstory is irreverent gold. We even blasphemed a bit when we changed the words to The Lord’s Prayer, “Our Colonel who art in Kentucky, hallowed by thy bucket.” Silly I know, but that silliness seemed to fit all things Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Back to the fast food chain’s marketing. Forbes covered the announcement of the baby-naming stunt saying, “In a vortex of over-the-top, gimmicky marketing schemes, this could very well be KFC’s most outrageous ploy yet.” That is a bit over-the-top reporting. Naming contests like this have gone on for over a hundred years. What the magazine gets right is KFC’s gravitational pull to the gimmicky.

And there is nothing more-gimmicky than the image of the Colonel himself. The brand has been pumping out crazy merchandise for the last couple of years. These include pillowcases with the Colonel’s face, pool floaties, cat furniture, fried chicken computer cover, large inflatable bucket chair, and an “internet escape pod” retailing for US$5,000.

The brand also pumped out edible nail polish, scented surfboard wax, and developed a sunscreen that smells like fried chicken. Most of this stuff is gone. The online shops closed. What does this tell you? The brand loves a gimmick and press release…they also love the social media buzz that often results. Like an old-time carny, they sell some snake oil and fold up the tent overnight.

It comes across as tacky and tactical. But that was the Colonel. He was a promoter. He appeared in the ads. He went to fairs, tradeshows, and visited the restaurants. The man kissed babies and shook hands. He was, and is, the brand.

That is why KFC’s marketing department continually resurrects him. The most recent incarnation began in 2015 because of poor performance. The brand had expanded aggressively internationally but suffered on home turf. KFC shuttered over 1,200 restaurants in the U.S.
between 2002 and 2016 (from 5,472 locations to 4,270). Chick-fil-A blew past KFC as the No. 1 chicken chain in the U.S. in 2013. Meanwhile, KFC fought of rumors of steroid-pumped chickens.

The chain fought back with “Re-Colonelization”. This went deeper than marketing. It reinvented the menu, remodeled restaurants, and retrained. By next year, 70% of the chain’s U.S. locations will have received impressive facelifts. In these locations, the Colonel is ubiquitous, nearing, omnipotence in image. Restaurant managers and staff have been put through a new and rigorous curriculum that evolves with the menu and customer service innovations.

To generate interest and foot traffic, the chain has been creating celebrity Colonels since 2015. The first featured Darrell Hammond as the Colonel. Results were definitely mixed especially on social media. The company was actually happy. Executives responded in the media that they were sick of playing it safe. The brand needed to breakout even if that meant mining the past. And they continue to reiterate, they are not disrespecting the actual man that was Colonel Harland Sanders, they are reverentially re-igniting his relevance.

And something is working. Since Re-Colonization, the U.S. has seen twelve straight quarters of same-store sales growth. Last year’s sales was up 6% globally.

What is working is the formula the Colonel set. He was not just a caricature, a spokesperson. He obsessed over the product and the experience. Now the chain has re-focused on quality food, clean restaurants, and attentive staff.

Once that was in hand, they took inspiration again from the Colonel. And that is where the gimmicks came in. And that is why you will see many more to come. They pique our interest, brush upon nostalgia, and remind us that the chicken is finger-licking good.


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