The brand is relying on Colonel Harland Sanders to be the boost it needs to repair its damaged reputation among American consumers.
It’s no secret that KFC has had a rough couple of years.
The competition in the fried chicken industry has never been hotter—brands like Chick-fil-A are consistently outperforming KFC. And the margin of victory is wide—Chick-fil-A’s U.S. systemwide sales topped $6.8 billion in 2015, while KFC’s fell below $4.4 billion, according to QSR Magazine. But KFC recognizes there’s a problem, and is now doing everything in its power to make a comeback.
In an interview with Buzzfeed last year, KFC’s chief marketing officer for the U.S. Kevin Hochman said, “We’ve had quite the while where we have not grown.” He continued, “There are a ton of fried chicken competitors, and they’re all growing.”
In order to become one of those growing brands, KFC is bringing back its signature marketing technique: Colonel Harland Sanders. The brand first started slipping when Colonel Sanders died in 1980—KFC turned away from its best-selling bone-in chicken menu items in favor of trends like popcorn chicken and the now infamous “Double Down,” which is a sandwich that substitutes fried chicken for bread. That’s when its sales took a turn for the worse, and when customers started looking for other fried chicken alternatives.
Now, instead of using cartoon or rapping versions of the Colonel in national ad spots, KFC is going back to its roots. Last spring the brand released an ad featuring comedian Darrell Hammond as Colonel Sanders. Since then, other celebrities including Jim Gaffigan and George Hamilton have put on the Colonel costume for national ad campaigns. It’s all a part of the brand’s plan to massively rehab its entire image. But that plan goes far beyond advertising.
“The idea is that we’re going back to the Colonel, and to his beliefs about treating guests, and making sure that we offer the highest quality and service in our stores, and what better way to do that than to make the Colonel front and center in all of our efforts? It’s not just in advertising—it embodies everything we do,” said Hochman in an interview with Fast Co. Create.
KFC is making Colonel Sanders a part of its DNA again. In addition to traditional recipes, the brand is also plastering the Colonel all over its new locations, and returning to the original red and white color scheme that made it recognizable in the first place. And of course, different variations of Colonel Sanders are expected to be introduced when the brand markets a different type of chicken.
So far, KFC’s comeback efforts have been met with mixed reviews from American consumers. But the brand is confident that this is the right direction, and is ultimately what will put the brand back on track to becoming the nation’s leading fried chicken brand.
“It’s going to take time. You can’t just pivot from Double Downs to ‘We make fried chicken in the back of the house’ overnight,” Hochman told Business Insider. He continued, “We have to have a point of view. We’ve been playing it safe for so many years—some people will like it, some people won’t like it, but at the end of the day if we’re growing our business and we get more people into our brand, it’s worth it,” Hochman told Business Insider.