For the last five years or so, America’s fast-food chains have been trying anything and everything to appeal to those mysterious millennials, who, research shows, aren’t as interested in the cheap cheeseburgers and fries that previous generations liked so much. The millennial fixation has inspired artisanal pizza toppings, selfie payment plans, mascot wardrobe changes, endless customization options, and surprising cameos from kale and Sriracha. Many of these efforts haven’t made much of an impact on the way that younger diners understand these brands. But there is one long-established chain out there that’s managed to cut through the noise and stay relevant in the social media era: KFC.
The company didn’t switch up its menu or change its dining rooms to keep up with the times. Instead, it simply partnered with a crack creative team on a campaign that simultaneously tapped into nostalgia while also positioning the brand as part of the irreverent, eclectic culture of the internet. By reviving the Colonel, KFC got a serious second wind. And by maintaining such a creative and refreshingly weird aesthetic, KFC has earned Eater’s #Brand of the Year award for 2017.
“Making this brand relevant again meant getting back to the roots and the philosophy of the Colonel,“ says George Felix, the director of brand communication for KFC’s parent company. Colonel Harland Sanders was reintroduced in 2015 via a series of commercials starring SNL alum Darrell Hammond playing the crackpot fast-food entrepreneur. A few months later, Norm Macdonald stepped into the role, establishing a pattern that’s still going strong today. By changing the actors often, KFC helps combat mascot fatigue while also communicating that the brand is playful and a bit restless.
But over the last year in particular, KFC launched a bunch of amusing stunts, many of which riff on the idea of the Colonel as an eccentric, but passionate, businessman. 2017 saw Sanders appearing in both a ridiculous and slightly creepy VR training video and a romance novella. The fried chicken salesman served as the inspiration for a legitimately cool apparel line. His arms and torso provided the roof of a Black Friday internet shelter. And in the ultimate stunt, the man in white sent one of his chicken sandwiches to the edge of space.
“We try to do as many things as we can outside of deals, offers, and product launches to just keep the brand in pop culture and keep people’s attention,” says Eric Baldwin, executive creative director at the ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. Baldwin, a former graphic designer who helped cook up the Old Spice Man ads, started his work on this campaign by scanning through the entrepreneur’s personal archive, which KFC keeps in a cave-like space at its Louisville, Kentucky headquarters.
“We found these awards that he had kept,” Baldwin says. “Old scripts, old footage from commercials, old packaging designs, old product innovations that had long been forgotten: a lot of that stuff informed our point of view. We were surprised to see that the Colonel seemed to find a way to tie fried chicken to any occasion.”
As Baldwin notes, many old KFC commercials show Sanders inserting himself and his chicken buckets into places where they seemingly didn’t belong. Forty years ago, that meant popping up at random picnics and in the family living room; W+K has modernized that approach into harlequin romance novels and graphic tees. In a few inspired bits, the 2017 Colonel also finds his way into old ads, and modern-day chicken lovers seemingly appear in vintage commercials.
Unlike many of his fast-food mascot colleagues, the Colonel is not always a cuddly fellow — he’s way pricklier than Wendy’s Dave Thomas or Ronald McDonald. This, too, is a reflection of the fast-food founder’s personality. “He would taste the gravy, and if it was bad, he was known to dump the whole thing on the floor and order the employees to clean it up and make it the right way,” Baldwin says.
Felix also notes: “He certainly was a character and a showman, but behind that was an unrelenting desire to serve the world’s best chicken.”
The inspiration for the most famous part of W+K’s current ad campaign — the rotating cast of actors playing the Colonel — was inspired by two other major pop culture figures: James Bond and Batman. “We felt like no one actor could really be Colonel Sanders,” Baldwin says. “Initially as we were going through this, we tried to do a casting call to try and find someone who looked like him. But then we realized that it was an inauthentic approach in a weird way, and it was better to have celebrities paying homage to his character as opposed to trying to recreate him.“
Beyond bringing KFC back to cultural relevancy, the Colonel campaign has also been good for business. “We’ve completed 11 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth, which for us is fantastic,” Felix says. No word yet on what 2018 will have in store for the Colonel — or who will play him next — but hopefully, KFC and the team at W+K will keep making ads and stunts as refreshingly weird as their 2017 hits.