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It’s Not (All) Rocket Science: How Brand Mission Guided KFC’s Turnaround

How the Colonel became the King of branded everything.

October 10th 2018

Over the past two years, KFC has created some of the most talked-about marketing in the game, while orchestrating a dramatic business turnaround. Doing so required the 65-year-old brand to embrace modern marketing methods — working with multi-disciplined teams to make multi-platform, earned, owned and paid content, integrating advertising with experience design (and, you know, sending things to space). But all of that newfangled creativity was driven by an old idea — Colonel Sanders’ idea of doing things the hard way. Here, KFC’s George Felix talks about how the Colonel became the king of branded everything, and going to space as a metaphor for doing things right.

In April, KFC founder Colonel Sanders (looking and sounding a lot like Rob Lowe) appeared on TV and announced plans to send the chain’s new Zinger sandwich to space, evoking a famous presidential rallying cry about doing things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

And, on June 29, the Zinger ascended to the stratosphere in a specially designed bucket-craft borne by a Stratollite balloon from World View. It was the literal zenith of a campaign, and brand reinvention, based on doing things the hard way. That is, by making things designed to earn attention, and even affection, from real people.

The campaign, which reintroduced KFC’s brand icon and his no-shortcuts philosophy, launched in May 2015 when Colonel Harland Sanders reappeared in culture, portrayed first by Darrell Hammond, and then, in subsequent ads, by actors including Norm Macdonald, George Hamilton, Billy Zane, Vincent Kartheiser, and Lowe. The Colonel, and his spirit, were also brought to life via an array of unexpected experiences and products. These included: a series of well-reviewed comics made in conjunction with DC, an Instagram football game, Extra Crispy sunscreen, and, almost unbelievably, a real romance novel, its pages filled with real, uh, romance. The brand continues to explore uncharted territory, marking National Fried Chicken Day with the launch of H.A.R.L.A.N.D., which used AI and speech recognition technology to allow drive-through customers to order from a robot Colonel. Recently, KFC opened an online merch store which earned high praise even from style outlets like Esquire (“Does not suck”) and GQ (“Actually good”).

Since its debut, the initiative has resulted in a striking volume and breadth of media coverage, and a sustained increase in sales. When the CEO of KFC parent YUM Brands reported nine consecutive quarters of growth in October 2016, he attributed results up to “distinctive and disruptive advertising and positioning.” But the attention-getting creative was only one part of a company-wide “re-Colonelization” that affected every part of KFC’s operation, down to staff training, store design and “oil management.”

As U.S. director of brand communications, George Felix has a hand in all elements of the company’s public facing persona — his job includes the oversight of everything from marketing to menu boards and employee uniforms — and has been involved from the start in the KFCnaissance. He joined KFC in May 2015 (from P&G where he worked on another big brand turnaround — the Old Spice Smell Like A Man phenomenon) and began work on the campaign immediately — he was on set for the Hammond spot his second day on the job.

We talked to Felix about what going to space and writing romance novels have to do with selling chicken, the importance of a brand north star, and the biggest challenge facing any marketer today.

W+K: I bet you never thought when you were an MBA student at UNC you’d be marshalling your marketing forces to send a sandwich to space.

George Felix: No, certainly not. But here we are.

Well, you did it. So I suppose we have to start with the obvious question: why send a sandwich to the edge of space? Is this the logical conclusion of doing things the hard way? What does this do for the brand?

Well, we learned a lot about what’s involved in sending something to the stratosphere and how complicated it is and how to make a chicken sandwich look great in those conditions. It was a lot of work done by our partners, Wieden+Kennedy, WorldView and MediaMonks along with our agencies Spark Foundry and Edelman. Turns out it takes a village to send a sandwich to space.

The problem we were trying to solve was how to bring the Zinger chicken sandwich to the U.S. The Zinger has been one of KFC’s most popular items across the world for more than 30 years, but it’s never been sold here. It seems simple, but for us it was a big deal for KFC in the U.S. to get into sandwiches. Now, chicken sandwiches are not necessarily big news in the U.S. at this point, so we knew we needed to find a way to make it feel much bigger. We had a 14-week limited-time promotion that we were trying to keep excitement up for. So the team at Wieden+Kennedy came back with the idea that just launching in the U.S. isn’t good enough for Colonel Sanders. He’d want to make it as big as possible, and nothing is bigger than going to space. That was the genesis of the idea. The goal was to keep KFC and the Zinger in the news for an extended period of time and get people talking about it for some time, and by all accounts I think we succeeded in doing that. And while everything didn’t go perfectly — we had delays and the launch was shorter than originally planned — I think we achieved that overall goal. And for that we’re really excited and proud of what we did.

“Our job as marketers is to drive sales overnight and brand over time. If we’re not accomplishing both of those we are not getting the job done.”

The Zinger campaign was by any standard a huge earned media event, but you obviously have goals beyond that. Tell us about what your goals were, and whether cultural buzz translates to those end goals.

We had the idea that this campaign could go beyond the typical outlets that would talk about a new KFC product. We had as our big audacious goal to be the most talked about QSR launch of the year. And in order to do that you need an idea that gives you the opportunity to break out of the normal places that would normally cover your news, and smart segmentation of your outreach. We had the NYT calling to talk about sending a chicken sandwich to space. We had all these space publications and pop culture publications, it really ran the gamut of outlets, all talking about KFC, and it was awesome to see. It was what we hoped for, but it was bigger and probably better than we could have imagined.

The way we talk about it is, our job as marketers is to drive sales overnight and brand over time. If we’re not accomplishing both of those we are not getting the job done. The number one thing we think of is sales. I’ve worked in industries where sales lag a bit and you have to wait for the sales to come in. This is not the case in our industry. So, anything we do we’re looking at sales first and foremost.

I do think that the other piece we have to layer on is, you can’t be only focused on making decisions in the short term that could be at the expense of the brand in the long term. We want to make sure we are doing things that are building the brand and turning new people onto the brand — people who may not have KFC on their radar, and the younger generation of consumers who didn’t grow up eating KFC or didn’t think it was a brand that was relevant to them. So when we get to those types of things, you are measuring buzz in social along with impressions in the outlets that are covering you.

So we do measure and study things like purchase intent of different age groups, and we are trying to correlate all of these things we are doing into short term sales. But we’re also looking at, what are the things we know are building the overall health of the brand and turning new people onto this brand?

One of the most interesting things about this campaign is that bringing back the Colonel and putting him at the center of marketing is sort of a physical manifestation of a bigger company reinvention that revolved around going back to the Colonel’s way — this idea of “doing things the hard way.” Can you talk about how the marketing campaign embodies a bigger shift at the company?

It really started with Wieden+Kennedy from a strategy standpoint. They helped us find the north star and get us back to the core values of what made Kentucky Fried Chicken great for so many years. It starts and ends with the Colonel. The reality is, a lot of people don’t know much about him or even know he was a real person. Younger people think he was a made up character that’s on the packaging. Once you get to know his story, it’s pretty incredible. This guy went through various careers and failed at different things and persevered, and then at age of 65 he invented Original Recipe and started this amazing brand. There’s a term he coined in the ‘70s — he thought the quality at KFC had slipped and he went on a tour that he called a “re-Colonelization tour” to get the quality back up to his standards. We took that to be true to him and true to what he stood for and we call what we’ve been going through as a brand these past two-plus years re-Colonelizing everything about this brand.

So you’re right, it involves every touch point you can imagine; marketing is just one piece of it. In operations, we’ve invested hundreds of thousands of hours training our team members, we’re remodeling 3,000 of our restaurants over three years, we updated packaging, we even went back to our old tagline “Finger Lickin’ Good.” Now everything, down to ID badges, says “make the Colonel proud.” It’s kind of this motto that our whole brand has adopted and it’s really getting back to the philosophy and principles and values on which Colonel Sanders founded the brand. That is, doing things the hard way, no short cuts.

“We are deliberate about finding new places, and new groups of people, new audiences that we have a right to win with.”

The campaign has included this broad, to the point of unusual, array of things — a comic book, sunscreen, etc., in addition to the sandwich space launch. How do you show they’re worth doing? A skeptic would ask you to explain how publishing a comic helps you sell chicken…

It’s a little bit art and science. There is simply a reality for us that to get the brand to where we want it to be, we all have to acknowledge that it’s not going to be done by just getting the people who already eat here to come back more frequently. We need to turn new people onto this brand. The reality is, a TV spot or radio ad is not going to be enough. It’s probably not going to be enough to get someone who doesn’t even have KFC in their consideration set to all of a sudden think that’s the place they need to go.

So, we are deliberate about finding new places, and new groups of people, new audiences that we have a right to win with. And the problem has just been that they haven’t seen much relevant information from KFC in a while, or ever. If we do it right we can find new groups of people and we can turn them onto KFC but we have to do it on their terms and we have to do it in a way that’s authentic and doesn’t seem like we just showed up at Comic-Con and slapped a KFC logo on a comic book. If we’re doing a comic, we want to partner with DC Comics, we want to make sure we have knowledge of what comic book fans are about and the things they love and how we integrate the Colonel into those stories in a way that both delivers an amazing comic book and weaves in some of the things we want people to take away about our brand.

That’s the challenge, and I think more and more, with people’s attention spans and the way people are consuming content, it’s just not realistic to think that traditional advertising will be enough anymore. So that’s why we’re looking for our creative partners to come to us with different and new ideas and different platforms we can use. Or, like Instagram, using a platform we’re already on in a different way. Those things get us excited and if we do them right, they can drive sales but also build the brand and turn new audiences onto the brand.

You haven’t been afraid to get a bit weird. It gives the audience credit, in a way, for sort of getting it…

We certainly don’t take ourselves too seriously in our advertising. We try to be self-aware, and that’s part of the tone of voice we’ve established. At the end of the day, we are advertising, and most advertising is not something people look forward to. We’ll be over the top but we’ll also be self-effacing with humor and I think people appreciate that.

And the other thing is that when we’re doing things like a comic book, or the romance novel starring Colonel Sanders, we want to do those things the right way. Our partners at W+K have helped me understand the value of that. It’s going back to the Colonel’s way of doing things the hard way and the right way. You can do a romance novel where you can get the funny picture to pass around, and people might laugh a little bit. But it’s another thing when you partner with a romance novelist and you get an oil painter who does romance covers to paint Colonel Sanders and you actually produce the books and you make them available on Amazon. When you do it in that way and you do it right and in an authentic way, it’s on a whole new level.

And that’s when you start getting publications that would never normally talk about KFC start taking notice and covering it, and you get audiences that would never think about KFC to start wondering what’s going on with that brand.

Every campaign has its own specific challenge. But there are obviously a lot of more general challenges to marketing any restaurant now: new competitors, fast casual, and just appealing to young customers of anything today. What do you think your main challenge is?

There are a few. We have over 4,000 restaurants in the U.S. and we want to deliver as consistent an experience as possible whether you go to a KFC in Kentucky, or Oregon, or anywhere in between. Advertising is one piece of that — that’s a perception you have of the brand. I think tying all those pieces together as a company is the biggest challenge. And there is no one part that is more important than the other. So we have to make sure we are always delivering a great food experience, a great experience at the restaurant, and then great advertising that is hopefully driving people to come back.

As a marketer in general, the challenge I continue to struggle with is the battle for people’s attention. How do we break through with all the different things we’re competing against for people’s attention? It’s daunting to think about because at the end of the day you can argue that a 15-second commercial is even too long for someone to pay attention to. That’s where doing these other things comes into play, these “non-traditional” marketing efforts. Whether it’s the comic books or sending a sandwich into space, we are battling for people’s attention and it’s not just against other advertisers, it’s against all the other options people have. So that’s the bigger challenge for me from a marketing standpoint is, how do we continue to break through and get our message across in a way that people will actually notice?

Are you finding that your operations are getting more integrated as the lines between all these ideas and disciplines blur?

You’re definitely seeing more projects that are spanning functions and requiring us all to think through, together, how to tackle the challenges we are facing as a brand and industry. We see it internally here at KFC and we see it with our partners at W+K. Just over the last six to nine months, the involvement we’ve had with the Lodge team (W+K’s creative technology company) on a number of different projects has gone way up. It feels natural because that’s just the way things are moving. And it’s a logical evolution of the type of work we’re doing. It requires a different set of expertise and a different skill set. We just lust launched our H.A.R.L.A.N.D. AI robot that allows our team members to speak through a robot that looks like Colonel Sanders in the Colonel’s voice. That’s one example from the Lodge team and we have some big fun projects coming up that we’ve been working on with that same team. I think you’re seeing it more and more that the lines are blurring and it will only continue to be more integrated as time goes on.

By Wieden+Kennedy Editorial