KFC’s Recipe for Marketing Success Is No Secret—Innovate While Respecting Tradition

Brand-agency team recaps big swings, hits and misses

Words to live by. - Credit by Photo by Doug Zanger
Headshot of Doug Zanger

CANNES, France—Most people have a favorite Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Colonel. From Rob Riggle’s frenetic energy to Rob Lowe’s cool space vibe to the awesome country legend Reba McEntire, the list is impressive and a veritable “who’s next” in brand marketing.

Another Colonel to add to that prodigious list is Eric Baldwin, executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) Portland. In character as Colonel Harland Sanders, he took the stage at the Cannes Lions festival with fellow W+K ecd Jason Bagley and George Felix, director of brand communications for KFC U.S., for an interesting conversation about the brand.

Recounting the not-so-great past, Felix noted that the brand “lost its way” and the core story that emerged was that what made the brand so special was locked away and forgotten, all in the quest to stay current. Sensing an opportunity, the agency team quickly realized that they were sitting on a goldmine of heritage and history, all sitting in the brand’s archives in Louisville, Ky.

“When we get started with a client, especially one that has a rich history, we like to dig in and see if maybe there is some truth about the brand,” said Bagley. “What we quickly realized is that this is the brand that had some of the most powerful and iconic brand assets in the world and they had pretty much abandoned all of them.”

The assets that went by the wayside, but have been given a substantially modern twist, including the red and white stripes, the tagline (“It’s Finger-Lickin’ Good”), the recipe and even Sanders’ face.

“What on earth were you thinking, fellows?!” gasped Sanders/Baldwin. “As far as I’m concerned that was the original most interesting man in the world.”

All joking aside, though, Bagley brought up a creative technique called “mirror marketing.” The theory behind the widely used practice is that to appeal to a particular target, it must show up in the advertising. KFC and the W+K team decided that the rule is outdated and should be abandoned to breathe life back into the brand. They also noted that heritage matters.

Other brands, like Burger King, for example, brought back useful historical tools (in their case flame broiling) as part of their marketing after mirror marketing failed. In KFC’s case, the field of tools to use—from the Colonel to just about everything else— became the enabler of what the agency calls “branded everything” and resulted in a mind-blowing 1,850 pieces of content for the brand.

There are obvious hits: its TV work, an online merchandise store (that GQ said “didn’t suck”), a spectacular WWE hookup and a Cannes Titanium-nominated stunt where the brand followed only 11 “Herbs” and “Spices” on Twitter.

“If I have a business problem, I pick up the phone, make one phone call, and I know the whole breadth of the agency is now working on how we can solve it.”
George Felix, director of brand communications, KFC U.S.

But there were also a few misses. An inflatable franchise didn’t necessarily pair well with hot oil. A GPS audio cassette, which gave turn-by-turn instructions to the nearest store, was found to be “not useful,” as Bagley put it. Other whiffs include a puzzling Instagram football game and a KFC puppet show (that they hope to try again) for kids that Bagley said, “gave them the lengthy detail, [and] step-by-step process of how to fry raw meat in hot oil.”

“You have to take a lot of swings,” noted Bagley. “There isn’t a way to guarantee that you’re going to always have a hit. But you have to think about what is going to bring value and entertain and surprise the consumer.”

For his part, Felix likes the creative energy and believes that brands will hold themselves back by trying to get more for less and not supporting innovation from their agencies. “I honestly think this is going to hurt brands more that it’s going to help,” he said.

Felix also noted that having a roster of specialty agencies is “from a marketer standpoint, exhausting and very difficult to manage. If I have a business problem, I pick up the phone, make one phone call, and I know the whole breadth of the agency is now working on how we can solve it.”

Additionally, the notion of in-house creative isn’t appealing to the brand, with Felix pointing out that the reason the brand has enjoyed consecutive years of impressive growth is the fact that agency and creative come from an outsider’s perspective.

“For any modern brand to succeed, we feel pretty strongly that you have to have that healthy debate,” said Felix.

“There’s a tension, you want to have collaboration,” added Bagley. “You want to challenge each other, and sometimes they push us in a direction that leads to better solutions. I think when you go in-house, you lose that tension and separation.”

Read all of Adweek’s coverage from Cannes, including how Free The Bid worked with Twitter to highlight female directors.

@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.
Publish date: June 26, 2018 https://dev.adweek.com/creativity/kfcs-recipe-for-marketing-success-is-no-secret-innovate-while-respecting-tradition/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT