Colonel Sanders is Back and He’s Spreading

Darrel Hammon as Colonel Sanders.Years ago—during a time before the Internet—PR and marketing executives, not to mention advertisers, were talking about the future of television, specifically the television commercial. VCRs (remember them?) were coming on the scene, and the business community was becoming antsy about the possibility that viewers would tape shows and skip commercials.

When business leaders gathered for conferences, many a session centered on whether or not television commercials, media’s lifeblood, were going to die. The consensus was the VCR would not kill them, although the impetus was on brands and their advertising agency partners to create better, more compelling commercials.

Skip to today. While the quality of television commercials generally may be only slightly better than it was years ago, we have a new phenomenon—people watching commercials for their entertainment value. And not just during the Super Bowl.

This phenomenon is related to what W20 Group president Bob Pearson calls “the new owned media” (see PR News, June 1, 2015). Today, brands house content not only on their Website but also on partner sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. Brands hope, of course, that fans share the message on their personal sites. In fact, it’s more than a hope: spreadable media should be a top priority of PR practitioners in the networked society, MIT’s Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green argued in “Spreadable Media.”

This leads to opening YouTube and finding suggested ‘Videos of the Day.' During a recent weeknight, the featured video was part of a series of spots starring former “Saturday Night Live” regular Darrell Hammond (see above) as a slightly goofy, musical version of the late Colonel Harland Sanders, the KFC patriarch who passed away more than 30 years ago. The effort is part of a $185-million resuscitation of the brand in the U.S., which changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to the more-healthy-sounding KFC in 1981, one year after Sanders died, aged 90. While his visage remained conspicuous, the Colonel hadn’t been featured in a KFC ad in some 20 years.

As you might expect, the ads have found fans and detractors. Hammond’s portrayal of the Colonel as a bit of a jokester is disrespectful and far from the truth, says former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown Jr. In fact, Brown says, the Colonel was a deadly serious hombre when it came to his fried chicken. Stories abound about Sanders, a perfectionist, driving round the country in a Cadillac or Rolls Royce to make appearances on behalf of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. His visits generally included a spot check. Heaven help the franchisee who was not up to Sanders’s standard. Pots and their contents would fly.

When Sanders made commercials or appearances on behalf of the brand he founded he was unscripted and all business, Brown argues. Always attired in a white suit and black string tie, he joked with small children only. In fact, the Colonel’s temper with adults was infamous. His language could get so blue it would make truck drivers blush.

Governor Brown should know—he bought the Colonel’s secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices in 1964 and turned Sanders’ thriving business into a national and later international icon. In fact, the biggest market for the Colonel’s chicken is, get ready for it, China. General Tso must be turning over in his grave.

But back to the short ads featuring Hammond as the Colonel, created by the current KFC owner, Yum! Brands. They’re good PR, touching many of the points PR and communications pros have been espousing in PR News and at to keep brands, especially older ones, relevant. Here's why:

  • Local: The ads are found where the audience lives. Sure, they’re on television, but your blogger was introduced to them via YouTube on his mobile phone. As soon as you've watch one, a series of new ones appears in the right-hand side of your screen.
  • Conversational: In the digital age, people—particularly millennials—want brands to talk to them, to have a human face. These new spots are nothing if not a conversation with the consumer. Taken together with a planned renovation of KFC’s nearly 5,000 U.S. restaurants that will feature images of and quotes from Colonel Sanders on new red-and-white walls, it sounds like KFC is creating a Colonel Sanders cult of personality.
  • KFC primed the pump a bit, though. Look at this short 2014 video about Maurice, a KFC cook. It’s conversational, equates a face with the brand and provides a backstory about how KFC’s chicken is made. [Incidentally, the backstory of how the Colonel’s recipe has been kept secret for nearly 80 years could make a terrific video. There’s a hint at :30 of this video about where the recipe resides.]
  • Humorous: While Governor Brown might be right—that the Colonel would disapprove of how his image is being used—PR pros have been urging brands to lighten up by carefully injecting humor and fun into their messages. Humor is at the core of these short videos that feature Sanders cackling like his chickens and even singing. Let’s face it—portraying him as a kindly, grandfatherly type was a sound creative and PR choice. Having Colonel Sanders launch into an expletive-loaded tirade over lumpy mashed 'taters just wouldn’t cut it today.
  • Short: In our attention-span-shortened world, KFC’s ads are less than 2 minutes in length. They're bite-size nuggets on your mobile phone or computer. (Yes, I know what you’re thinking, if only the Colonel’s chicken was similarly as digestible.)
  • Nostalgic: This is a bit controversial, using nostalgia to attract millennials. Similar to McDonald’s' menu, KFC’s choice of fare has grown considerably. It now includes items that would surprise even the Colonel, who was a fried chicken, mashed potatoes & gravy and biscuits kind of guy. [Rumor is he ate his chicken every day for years.] Unlike McDonald’s, which recently resurrected a redesigned Hamburglar perhaps to spur nostalgia, KFC arguably possesses a real history that people can relate to. It's the Colonel’s story, which is a hardscrabble one, coming up as a penniless kid with an elementary-school education and finally finding success in his late 60s.
  • Another piece of history that KFC owns is its cooking method. KFC’s fried chicken still is made using the Colonel’s secret recipe and closed-frier method. In that sense, its decision to return to the Colonel, the one who brung ‘em to the dance and made Kentucky Fried Chicken the top brand, seems logical. But will millennials respond? These ads are a good start, but there’s a way to go yet. A 2010 survey by USA Today showed most young Americans (aged 18-25) didn’t know who Sanders was. Half thought he was a fictional character.

That leads to the larger business story. Why has KFC parent Yum! decided the brand needs a revamp? The quick answer is that it no longer is the top fast-food chicken brand in the U.S. That crown belongs to Chick-fil-A, which topped the Colonel’s sales in 2013, and did so with fewer restaurants.

Like McDonald’s, KFC is going to be making changes large and small to see if it can get back on top. As with the burger chain, there will be advice-givers aplenty. While many have counseled both brands to feature healthier items, some urge them to stay the course, making the case that their food might be greasy, fatty and sodium-laden, but it tastes good and is no less healthy than other fast-food establishments.

Another reason to return to Colonel Sanders? The company admits that KFC has lost its way a bit and wants to return to a time when it was #1, and that includes Colonel Sanders personally making sure things were being done the right way. Yum hopes it will be infusing KFC with the Colonel's spirit of quality, integrity and hard work. Needless to say, KFC can no longer rely on  Colonel Sanders to make spot visits to franchises, but perhaps Darrel Hammond as Colonel Sanders can surprise a few franchisees with a surprise inspection and throw over a bowl or two of gravy. I’m licking my fingers at the thought of it.

Seth Arenstein is Senior Editorial Advisor to PR News. Follow him on Twitter: @brahmsandmahler