In 1930, Colonel Harland Sanders opened a small service station along Route 25 in Corbin, Kentucky. At the time, it only seated 6 people but word had quickly spread about Sanders’s renowned culinary skills. Sometime after, he amassed enough fame, fans and fried chicken to seat over 140 people in the Harland Sanders Café. Today, KFC has over 22,500 locations around the world, own franchises in over 135 countries and territories (more than McDonald’s) and in 2018, generated over $2.64 billion in revenue. The world of fried chicken is in hot demand, too. According to Mintel, the amount of fried chicken being offered in US restaurants has grown 21% since 2015. KFC is largely responsible for this meteoric rise in demand.
KFC is in the midst of a monumental turnaround – you’ve had 5 years of consecutive growth. What would you say are the ingredients for driving the brand relevance in a market where customer expectations are constantly shifting?
We are being incredibly deliberate about making the KFC brand relevant. There’s two big ways that we’re doing that, in the context of our industry: and that is through bold marketing activations and bold menu innovation. It’s all about making the brand that we have – and the product that we have – really relevant. We do this in a way that’s grounded in who we are as a brand but dynamic enough to push out those boundaries. We’re finding ways to take what’s iconic about our brand to where our customers are to show up in unexpected way that ultimately make those experiences better for them. And we’re always finding new ways to do this. We are very agile, we’re looking out for trends and trying to be there in the moment when those trends are happening; and we have to be brave, willing to go outside of what is comfortable.
What’s the difference between being current and being relevant?
Anybody can be current – you just need to research trends and insert your brand into them. To be relevant is much harder, and it starts with really knowing who you are, as a brand. We began working with Wieden+Kennedy in 2014 and that was really the start of our turnaround. They spent months going through the archives and we realized together that when we had been at our best as a brand, we were led by the heartbeat of our brand, Colonel Sanders. We also chose that moment to put all those evocative, iconic signifiers – the Red & White Bucket, the Colonel tie – back into the front and center of our brand. Once we’d re-grounded ourselves in who we were as a brand, we looked for new ways to show up and express that. We want to create experiences that people want to be a part of that elevate what people are already doing. We also like to find micro-cultures and experiment around how we can embed ourselves into them. Mother’s Day is one of our biggest days of the year (from a sales perspective) and for 2018 we wanted to make it our biggest year ever, so we created a very special treat for Mom: we hired the world-famous Chippendales, we rebranded them as the Chickendales, met them in Las Vegas on their stage, where they choreographed a custom dance, just for us. From this, we created a website where you could download a customizable, personalized Chickendales video for your mom. This campaign absolutely became a magnet. In the first couple days we pulled in over 17M organic views and over 300,000 people made a customizable video. It went back to this idea, of creating something engaging that drew people in and that they wanted to be a part of.
You’ve spoken a little in the past about wanting the KFC brand to act like a magnet, not a mirror – what do you mean by that, and how do you make it happen?
Fundamentally, you want to be a brand that people want to be a part of. It’s that simple. You don’t want to be slapping your logo onto things; you want to create experiences that people want to get involved with. For example, if we were concerned with staying current, we could hire a few Instagram influencers and get them eating and talking about KFC at Coachella. And we would be in culture and that would be fine. Instead, we looked at the trend for Influencers and asked ourselves how we could embed ourselves in that trend in a way that would invite people in. So, we made The Colonel into a virtual influencer and he struck a chord with the public. People really began to follow him, engage with him, to such an extent that, ultimately, we were paid by brands like Dr Pepper, Casper, TurboTax and Old Spice to promote their products. In the end, a quarter of our media spend on this campaign was paid for by other brands. And our virtual Colonel was out there influencing on behalf of other brands. You don’t get any more relevant than when other brands are paying you to make their brands relevant.
How important are innovations in driving the brand forward?
Fast food customers have a lot of choice and are not very loyal, so I spend a lot of my time building an innovation program that is highly craveable to customers, so that they want to come to us. There was a time that the KFC brand risked becoming irrelevant, so committing to becoming a brand that is relevant across generations was our only option. We reconnected with our heritage to understand what of our core anchors us emotionally to customers, and then we looked at how we could innovate and push boundaries to drive our relevance and deliver this kind of growth. If we weren’t willing to go out there and take these swings; if we weren’t pushing commitment to change cross functionally and overcome obstacles, then I believe our brand would not be in its sixth consecutive year of growth. Our menu innovation needs to be exciting and really make people want to come to KFC to try it. The debut of this menu innovation program was Chicken & Waffle that launched in the fall. Waffles are a huge food trend, that most people have heard of but haven’t tried, either because they couldn’t find it or they couldn’t afford it. And we were able to solve both of those tensions, by bringing in a delicious waffle that we could serve hot at over 4,000 restaurants around the country, at a price point that people could afford, that allowed them to be a part of this huge food trend. It’s delivered through a product that is at the core of our business, our world-famous fried chicken, so we can do it in a way that’s grounded in who we are – but pushes into a trend that’s happening out in the world.
How do you create the internal commitment to drive complex innovation and change?
It’s always a team effort making food innovation a reality, from concept to serving in restaurant. Our all-star marketing, operations and food innovation teams share a passion for collaborating to make it work. We spent months and months trying to make the waffles work. The challenge wasoperational: how do you serve a hot and fresh waffle, in 4,000 locations across the US? And it was a tough one to crack. We were completely committed to delivering this, because it’s an innovation that is at the heart of our business and speaks to a huge food trend – KFC had to be the one to solve this and bring this to customers. No one else is going to be able to do it. It was only through this cross-functional collaboration and commitment and partnership with our operations and food innovation teams that we were able to crack it. As soon as we got the right formulation, we put ourselves under incredible pressure to launch it. We did a merchandising test, which showed it was going to be incredibly successful, but we did not do an advertising test. When we launched it, we went really big with the advertising – and it just poured gasoline on an idea that was already going to be big and customers got so excited about it that we actually ended up running out of waffles.