Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: KFC changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken because, legally, they can’t describe the product they sell–made up of mutant, eight-legged birds without feathers!–as “chicken.” The company’s chief marketing officer, Kevin Hochman, has heard that one, too. “Over the years, a lot of customers, believe it or not, think that we can’t legally say the word ‘chicken,'” he laughs. “And the shame of the whole thing is that all of our chickens are from farms right here in Arkansas and Georgia and states that you know. We don’t use any steroids or added hormones to our chickens. That’s illegal. I would go to jail if that were the case.”
These are the things that you have to address if you work in the fast-food business sometimes, but Hochman has been hard at work to change the image of Kentucky Fried Chicken, words that appear in bright red letters on their packaging and website once more, over the past few years. Part of that process has involved hiring a slew of famous faces–Darrell Hammond, Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, and now George Hamilton–to step into the bright white suit of its founder and mascot, Colonel Harland David Sanders.
It’s a weird campaign. Reviving an old mascot isn’t unheard of–McDonald’s brought back the Hamburglar as a hot, hipster burger thief last year–but reviving an old mascot who was an actual living, breathing person who founded your company is a bit more unusual. And it’s not been without controversy (Hammond recently told SiriusXM that he felt “played” when they replaced him for Macdonald after only six months). But the decision to bring the Colonel back, according to Hochman, was a decision to tell the KFC story in a way that let people know what the brand really was.
“We were thinking about, ‘What’s our North Star?’ And our North Star is the Colonel, and doing things the hard way,” he says. “When we’re at our best, the Colonel is at the center of everything. When he passed, we started losing our way a little bit, so the idea is that we’re going back to the Colonel, and to his beliefs about treating guests, and making sure that we offer the highest quality and service in our stores, and what better way to do that than to make the Colonel front and center in all of our efforts? It’s not just in advertising–it embodies everything we do. If you ever came out here and saw our headquarters, the whole place has been remodeled, and the Colonel is everywhere. The badge ‘Make the Colonel proud’ is everywhere. It’s so much more than just an advertising thing–it’s something that we think will make us stronger again.”
The return of the Colonel to KFC isn’t just about advertising, but advertising is definitely a big part of it. Hammond may have felt burned by the fact that they moved on from him so quickly, but Hochman says that that’s how the company always conceived the campaign.
“The thought was that we would bring him back in different iterations, depending on the promotional window, and we obviously started with Darrell Hammond, who did a phenomenal job of essentially recreating the Colonel. It was a very good impression,” Hochman says. They cycled through after that–Norm MacDonald came in to make fun of the campaign, a bold move for something that was only six months old (“We thought Norm had that irreverent kind of humor that it could work”), then Gaffigan came to promote the “Nashville Hot” product, while “the golden bronze of Mr. George Hamilton” was tapped because “the majority of our customers don’t know that we have extra crispy, a second recipe for fried chicken, at our restaurant.”
Hochman essentially describes the revival of the Colonel–the “re-Colonelization” is a word he uses–as a return to form, but also a nod to meta-marketing. Younger people are savvy, they like self-aware advertising, Colonel Sanders was always a shameless chicken salesman, why not lean into that? But it’s also a way to try to capture some of the artisanal, handmade, hipster cred that every fast-food chain has found itself craving as the Chipotles and Shake Shacks of the world have boomed in popularity. “KFC” may have become something of a faceless brand on the side of the interstate, but Colonel Sanders’s Kentucky Fried Chicken could be something more.
“That’s exactly right,” he says. “A lot of people don’t really understand why we changed our name years ago. The intent was to say, ‘We have more than just fried products. We have grilled products, we have sides. There are a lot of different ways that you can eat at a Kentucky Fried Chicken besides having fried chicken.” But with the re-Colonelization of KFC, they were willing to sacrifice that if it meant that they could tell the story of their brand more effectively. “For us, [going back to Kentucky Fried Chicken] was about telling the customer, ‘We can say Kentucky Fried Chicken!’ It’s critically important for us to let people know that we’re proud of our brand and what it stands for.”
Despite Hammond’s dissatisfaction, Hochman is also proud of the job that the comedian did as Colonel Sanders. He declined to speak to the specifics of Hammond’s complaints about feeling misled, but he gushes about the job he did. “We thought he was a fantastic Colonel, and our contract with him was for six months,” he says. “I can’t really comment on what he said or didn’t say.”
Subsequent Colonels certainly know the deal, though, and there almost certainly will be subsequent colonels. Hochman doesn’t go into the specifics of what the future holds–“That’ll ruin the surprise”–but, he says, the goal for the campaign is to stay fresh and to make sure that the replacement doesn’t become a formula. “We thought George Hamilton was very unexpected, and we’ve got to make sure that we keep it fresh and unexpected, and still stay relevant–that’s the one thing for sure that we’re going to do.” Could that mean a female Colonel? “As long as we stay unexpected,” Hochman says, “all things are in-game.”