Colonel Harland Sanders, who founded “finger lickin’ good” Kentucky Fried Chicken in the US in 1952, has been dead since 1980. And under previous owners and its current parent, Yum! Brands, KFC either had let the Colonel rest in peace or misunderstood his image—think of Sanders as a cartoon character or a rapper—for all those years.
Until 2015, that is.
Yum’s once-iconic chicken brand had been beset by years of decline brought on by consumer concerns about fried foods, the lack of exciting new products, a drift in the brand, and aggressive and successful competition in the form of Chick-fil-A as well as increased chicken offerings by other fast-food chains.
In fact, while KFC lost more than 1,200 net restaurants in the US over a 15-year period, Chick-fil-A surpassed its rival as America’s No. 1 chicken chain by sales in 2013—with half the outlets. In the meantime, Yum! made plans to spin off its fast-growing China division, in part because KFC in China couldn’t shake food-safety scandals.
But now KFC is well into its second year of a US-focused comeback plan that has Colonel Sanders back to the center stage that he occupied in the brand’s original growth arc. The plan for “Re-Colonelization” of KFC is taking huge advantage of the reservoir of awareness and even affection among American consumers for the man who started it all.
“Re-Colonelization” has included not only bringing back personifications of a more authentic Colonel via famous comics and celebs but also a total brand refresh, reinventing the KFC menu, remodeling restaurants and retraining employees across the US.
The brand put its first stake in the ground with the return of the Colonel character as played by comedian Darrel Hammond. It attracted quick attention and media buzz, which only accelerated when it became clear that KFC was going to keep “replacing” the Colonel with new celebrities and evolving pitches, as Colonel No. 2, Norm Macdonald, began appearing in ads.
In an ad for Super Bowl 50, Jim Gaffigan played the Colonel. And to kick off the 2016 National Football League season, KFC enlisted Rob Riggle, who perhaps is best known for his humorous shtick on the NFL pre-game shows on Fox, to play the white-suited chicken legend.
And famously tan actor George Hamilton has most recently stepped up to role as the “Extra Crispy Colonel.”
While the Colonel has been re-exciting consumers and putting KFC on more meal consideration lists, the brand also has been busily attempting to feed growth with dozens of store remodelings and a plan to redesign 70 percent of its US locations within three years.
Then there’s the menu. While admittedly this is an area where KFC faces a huge uphill battle with Chick-fil-A, the brand has been introducing new menu items that are getting some traction, including Nashville hot chicken. KFC also is boosting the quality of its food—another area where Chick-fil-A fares well—by recalibrating its fryers and retraining employees while emphasizing pride and details in preparing chicken items fresh in its stores.
It’s what the new Colonels call “the hard way” in KFC’s successful marketing campaign.
And sure enough, in a quick-serve restaurant business that has been stagnating lately, KFC has managed to report rising sales every quarter since the Colonel’s return and same-store sales growth of 2 percent in the second quarter. It’s also opening more restaurants across the US.