Bringing Back the Colonel: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Bringing Back the Colonel: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Is reaching into the past the right move for franchise brands looking to the future?

Break out your finest white suit and southern-style bow tie - Colonel Sanders is back. Or, at the very least, a very game Darrell Hammond is back, this time portraying the Colonel instead of Bill Clinton on “Saturday Night Live.”

According to Business Insider, KFC brought back the guise of its legendary spokesman in order to “celebrate 75 years since the fast-food chain's secret fried chicken recipe was created.”

However, the return of the Colonel raises a few important questions about the importance of having a recognizable brand mascot, as well as reaching back into the vault for marketing campaigns.

Jason Vaughn, president and COO of Lenny’s Sub Shop, recently spoke about these very topics. And with his history as Director of Operations at Yum! Brands, which encompassed KFC, along with Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, who better?

“The Colonel was always present, but he wasn’t front and center like he is now,” Vaughn said. “At some point during the brand’s tenure, they tried to distance themselves from ‘Kentucky fried.’ I think now they’re going back to their origins and rediscovering what made them very successful in the first place.”

KFC isn’t the only major brand to recently launch a blast from the past. McDonald’s just heralded the return of its Hamburglar character, albeit replacing the original cartoon version with a hyper-real iteration that was met with derision online.

“My gut tells me they’re going back to their origins because smaller brands are all about origins today,” Vaughn said. “Think of the whole garden-to-table movement. Big brands are trying to figure out how to be small again. They want to tell people, ‘We used to be like that, let us tell you.’ Some of that may be getting lost in translation.”

Maybe a hipster Hamburglar isn’t the best way to go about things. In fact, maybe relying on a brand mascot isn’t a solution at all. Just look at Popeyes and Chipotle for inspiration.

“Popeyes is simply embracing who they are,” Vaughn continued. “Fried food that’s really good with a solid price value. I don’t think the emotional connection has to be a requisite for a brand to be highly successful. There’s no face to Chipotle, but they’re highly successful.”

Mascots and brand spokespeople can themselves sometimes lead to unique challenges. Vaughn knows this firsthand from his time as division vice president at Wendy’s International. When Dave Thomas passed away, Wendy’s struggled with its identity.

Whether it’s the Colonel, the Hamburglar or any other nostalgia-soaked character, Vaughn believes there are more important things than creating an instantly recognizable mascot.

“I think brands have to understand who their audience is and who they want to be to them,” he said. “Once they know that, they need to hold true to that vision. Don’t try to be everything to everybody.”

At the same time, staying true to a vision doesn’t preclude evolving as a brand when it makes sense. Of course, there’s a big difference between evolution and chasing trends.

“Brands that don’t change on whims but are willing to evolve are the most successful,” Vaughn said. “Following trends is dangerous business. Every year a brand that has a new menu or new look, people don’t know who they are.”

Time will tell if KFC’s decision to bring back the Colonel pays off in the long term, but brands may want to start putting more stock on what they’ll do best in the future instead of reaching into the past.