Will Millennials Dig Colonel Sanders? 5 Questions with KFC’s Kevin Hochman

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Now that KFC has revealed the rebooted Colonel Harland Sanders, it’s fair to ask why. And that answer has a lot more to do with KFC’s business plan than the mere fact that this is the 75th anniversary of the recipe that inspired the feisty chicken salesman to set out to serve the best fried chicken around.

In a new TV advertising campaign in which Saturday Night Live alumnus Darrell Hammond plays the Colonel, the Yum! Brands-owned company has turned to nostalgia—and some cringe-worthy humor—to underscore the point that there are as many reasons to like KFC today as there were when he founded the company.

brandchannel talked with Kevin Hochman, chief marketing officer for KFC US, about the return of the Colonel and his company’s place in the market in this critical year of refreshing the brand, which will include refreshed restaurants and packaging, along with reclaiming the full “Kentucky Fried Chicken” name.

KFC Colonel Sanders Darrell Hammond

bc: Why was Colonel Sanders originally eased off the KFC stage?

Kevin Hochman: That was 20 years ago, and it was the biggest challenge in the history of the brand. The Colonel had passed away from leukemia. A lot of people today don’t know that he was a real person and absolutely revered by our franchisees—a lot of them back then knew and worked with the Colonel.

He could obviously sell chicken but also knew the value of a hard day’s work value and generosity of spirit. He would travel from restaurant to restaurant, making sure the chicken and sides were being prepared with his recipes.

bc: So why bring the Colonel back now?

KFC original Colonel Harland SandersHochman: When he passed away in 1980, we lost our rudder a bit. He wasn’t just a character who represented the brand and went away—he was the soul of the brand. When we went back in our archives to understand where the brand came from, the Colonel was at the center of everything we did when we were at our best.

We’re trying to get back to the brand that made us great—but in a way that will be relevant to today’s younger population. If you look at what he stood for, those things are as relevant today as they were way back when.

He was very committed to craftsmanship and doing one thing really well For example, he invented a way to cook chicken in a pressure cooker that would allow it to maintain more of its flavor from 11 herbs and spices, and also was faster.

That kind of thing is incredibly relevant today. Look at the popularity of DIY online. Craft breweries. YouTube videos about things you never thought you could do. It’s very relevant to young people. He called it “the hard way.”

bc: How else do you believe reviving the personality of the Colonel will appeal to millennial consumers?

KFC Colonel SandersHochman: He had hospitality and generosity not just in his food but in his spirit. So we think it makes sense to point out that KFC had our family bucket that allowed you to share large meals.

It’s been critically important to our brand. Three-quarters of our core customers today who buy buckets are eating with family and kids at the table. And we know that the idea of sharing is critically important today to young people. Just look at the success of Uber and other sharing services.

The Colonel was basically an American showman, with his white suit, cane and Van Dyke beard. The idea of being that kind of showman is very relevant today: Everyone thinks they can be a star and stand for something.

So we want to maintain our core customers—families with kids—but we have to get younger and get millennials and Generation Z back into our brand.

bc: KFC has had several challenging years in the US market, given the proliferation of serious competition, and the attention that Yum! has been paying to the China market. Where does that leave you?

Hochman: The No. 1 driver of why our results haven’t been as good here is that we’re in a competitive market—not just in QSR, but in fried chicken especially.

There’s Chick-fil-A, regional brands like Bojangles, and new concepts that sell boneless forms of chicken that are more popular with younger people. So it’s a more competitive situation. We had a very popular product and people were gunning for us.

KFC Colonel Sanders tweet

bc: Some have criticized the new Colonel campaign already as including awkward humor. Was that intentional?

Hochman: I’m not sure if it’s awkward but here’s our intent and our tone of voice: The Colonel was this over-the-top chicken salesman. It didn’t matter what day it was, he’d sell you that it was great day for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

So those lines may seem a bit ridiculous, but coming from an older man in a white suit who was well trusted because he did things the hard way got people quite excited.

One piece of this campaign is the over-the-top salesman voice that will be relevant again, because young people don’t want to be sold to—and we’re running right toward that joke.

The other piece is the fact that the Colonel did represent quality. We still do things the hard way without being preachy.

KFC Colonel Sanders

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