So, what’s wrong with the new KFC campaign? The one that reintroduces a chicken-crazed world to one of its its foremost harbingers, The Colonel, Harlan Sanders.
Before answering that question, let’s take a look at the problem this advertising is looking to address. KFC, like its fast-food pioneering cousin McDonald’s, has been seeing sales go down … down … down.
Is it because people are “eating healthier?” Hmmn. Perhaps. But, to quote Mr. Seinfeld “Have you been to the DMV lately?” A quick survey of body types at the mall or the beach suggests that Americans still love their fast food just fine, thank you very much.
Still, the decline exists. So KFC did what any brand would do… put its account in review and settle with one of the world’s premier ad agencies (that’s Wieden+Kennedy, in case you missed it.)
So the answer to the question above is, well, there’s nothing wrong with the way the new KFC campaign is executed. As you’d expect from W+K, the ads themselves are extremely well-crafted. The campaign checks the boxes on everything else the modern ad campaign is supposed to do: It’s viral in all the right ways. It makes people feel good. Matt Lauer is talking about it. There’s an endless stream of content surrounding it. See for yourself …
There’s nothing wrong with it. But I think it’s doomed to fail at what matters most to the business … building sales.
Again, like McDonald’s KFC is reaching back into the past and leveraging an old brand icon. (And The Colonel has it all over the Hamburglar any day of the week!) The problem is, they are reaching back into a past that doesn’t exist anymore … and I’m not talking about the rose-colored haze of nostalgia. The American where McDonald’s and KFC ruled the roost (groan!) is gone for good, and any failure to realize that is troublesome, if not potentially fatal.
The Colonel — the real person, not the caricature — ruled because he, like the McDonald brothers and Ray Kroc, had a really good product and a really good idea. He won the way brands win today …by being innovative and being willing to invest in his innovation.
KFC dominated by:
Having a good product
Bringing it to parts of the U.S. that didn’t have it before
Being somewhat ubiquitous in both its locations and its advertising
and, THIS IS MOST IMPORTANT,
Having the field pretty much to itself.
So, back then, just having a icon/spokesman telling the world about your secret blend of 7 herbs and spices was enough, because nobody else was offering anything like it. And, if they did, they didn’t have the resources to tell the world about it. Having that as the fuel and a national advertising campaign as the engine was the formula for huge success.
But those conditions just aren’t there anymore. As tasty as KFC still is, pretty much everybody is selling chicken these days, and a lot of it is pretty tasty too. KFC’s biggest competition now comes from Chick Fil-A — which has a really strong brand … built while KFC was resting on its laurels and depending on semantic shunts like avoiding the word “Fried”.
So, while KFC looks to rebuild its brand on the sands of a once-great Empire that no longer exists, looking to attract a consumer base that is as likely as not to have even heard of its esteemed icon, strong, smart brands like Chick Fil-A continue to look ahead with smart strategies such as partnerships and sponsorships.
I see The Return of The Colonel as KFC’s “Hail Mary” pass. And, yes, those do result in big wins. Sometimes. But, more often, they fall short, because the opposition is already in place to deny it.
And that, more than anything else, is what’s wrong with the KFC campaign. It’s hoping that the strategy that worked when there was nobody else on the field will still win in a world where everyone already has a really strong defense in place.
Let that be a lesson. Once a brand is in decline, it’s really hard to bring it back. So don’t let it decline in the first place. Apple got that. Capital One got that. KFC and McDonald’s, sadly, did not.