Return of Colonel Sanders Helps KFC Climb Back From ‘Rock Bottom’
KFC partnered with Spirit Halloween to turn its founder Colonel Harland Sanders' iconic white suit into an official, limited-edition Spirit Halloween costume.
The Chickendales. A Mother’s Day promotion KFC created last year using real Chippendales dancers in which people could send personalized videos to their moms—or someone they thought could use a laugh—is just one example, said President Kevin Hochman, of how the fried chicken giant reintroduced Colonel Sanders as the central figure in its brand.
Speaking today at the International Franchsie Association Convention in Orlando, Hochman, who as chief marketing officer in 2015 was part of the campaign to resurrect the Colonel, shared how KFC revamped its strategy in the face of slumping sales and franchisee unrest. It wasn’t just about bringing back the Colonel for marketing purposes, he said, but bringing KFC founder Harland Sanders’ focus on quality back as well, and “not taking shortcuts.”
“‘Craveable taste made the hard way’ is literally don’t take shortcuts,” said Hochman of one component of KFC’s then-new brand positioning. That meant focusing on execution in the restaurants, along with an effort to improve food quality and customer service.
“We hit rock bottom,” recalled Hochman of the situation at KFC 10 years ago, when it launched grilled chicken and a campaign of “Unthink what you thought about KFC.”
“It got so bad that our franchisees sued us,” he continued, in reference to a coalition of franchisees who in 2010 sued the chain, maintaining KFC spent too much time and money promoting Kentucky Grilled Chicken and ignored its core product, fried chicken. “We were at rock bottom.”
KFC was also grappling with shifting consumer preferences that moved away from bone-in chicken, plus changes to the nature of family mealtimes, with fewer families eating together at home, Hochman noted. “When your whole business is built on a bucket and as a meal replacement” that’s a problem.
The brand hired Karl Lieberman, the creative director who co-created “The Most Interesting Man In The World” campaign for Dos Equis, to help re-concept the Colonel. But before comedian Darrell Hammond debuted as Colonel Sanders in a TV spot in 2015, Hochman noted the chain first put its founder “front and center” in its store design, created new packaging, and “the last thing that we did” was the advertising campaign.
Franchisees, he pointed out, were part of the process from the outset, and the brand was as transparent as possible about its expectations and timeline—and providing data to operators. It’s “here’s why we’re making the decision that we’re making,” said Hochman of his approach, something that’s continued since he was named president and chief concept officer in 2016.
“It’s when you don’t listen or you don’t tell them what you’re doing with their feedback that you run into trouble.”
KFC’s had six consecutive years of same-store sales growth, and the brand continues to inject itself and Colonel Sanders into popular culture, doing spots on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” licensing Halloween costumes and partnering with World Wide Wrestling.
Hochman recalled when he was first presenting the “re-Colonelization” idea to executives at parent Yum Brands. “I had people who literally said to me, what are you gonna do, bring back a dead guy? And I said well, yeah, that’s kinda the plan.”