KFC has been leveraging everything from its iconic Colonel Sanders to weird new flavors to refurbished stores in its efforts to turn around a lagging brand.
And a couple of years of focused efforts by the Yum! Brands-owned chicken chain seemed to be having KFC take flight again: System-wide sales began growing again over the past couple of years, and the brand has posted 11 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth even while much of the rest of its industry struggles with changed consumer habits.
Yet one big obstacle looms in the way of KFC regaining its crown as the king of the US chicken biz: Chick-fil-A, which continues to perform even better than its long-time rival.
The fact that KFCs’ efforts have come to a sort of fruition is underscored these days by the fact that the brand finally is turning back to the original, authentic Colonel Harland Sanders in its advertising. After a couple of years of using comics and actors including Norm McDonald, Darrell Hammond, Rob Riggle and Jim Gaffigan as representations of the Colonel, in new ads KFC brings back the real Colonel, 27 years after his death.
Using a mix of actual old commercial footage and new stuff made to look contextual, KFC brings back the chain’s founder at a time when he might be proud to be associated with what he called Kentucky Fried Chicken.
After all, it’s been an uphill battle. Caught in the Great Recession downdraft like the rest of the US fast-food industry, KFC finally began getting up off the mat with a determined comeback effort that began with the brand and has been led largely by a marketing guy.
“When Kentucky Fried Chicken was at its best and growing the fastest, the Colonel and his values were at the center of everything we did,” that marketing guy, Kevin Hochman, Brand President and Chief Concept Officer for KFC, told QSR Magazine (read brandchannel’s own interview with Hochman here).
To recreate that sort of growth, Hochman and others “went back and started with, what’s the DNA of KFC?” Brian Cahoe, chief development officer, told the magazine. “And how do we bring this great, iconic brand back to life in the US? That’s the lens we’ve taken everything through in this journey.”
The journey has included not only rotating advertising Colonels but also highlighting the Original Recipe chicken that started the KFC phenomenon, a new taste sensation called Nashville Hot, and the announcement of a deadline to stop using chicken treated with antibiotics for human medicine.
Also, there’s a new store design that ratchets up the brightness of the KFC exterior with bright stripes of white and red, designed to resemble KFC’s iconic chicken bucket.
Also in an effort to capture the millennial generation that now is the heart of every QSR demographic, KFC has resorted to all sorts of limited-time products and marketing gimmicks, such as a new to-go chicken box that doubles as a Bluetooth game controller.
The biggest non-cooperator in KFC’s comeback is Chick-fil-A. Despite KFC’s best efforts, Chick-fil-A “is dominating fast food,” as Business Insider put it. Its stores sell four times as much volume as KFC’s even though Chick-fil-A famously isn’t open on Sundays. Chick-fil-A also puts most other QSR operators to shame in the sales-volume competition.
Chick-fil-A executives told Business Insider the brand’s edge comes from customer service more than anything else. KFC is concentrating more on the store experience as well, but it might be some time before the Colonel beats Chick-fil-A’s happy cows in that department.