khj_blog_kfcThe idea that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is often attributed to P.T. Barnum, 19th century circus owner and showman, but today it is KFC putting the old adage to the test by bringing back the late great Colonel Harland Sanders. In May, KFC launched a new campaign featuring SNL-alum Darrell Hammond as the Colonel. The ads generated quite the buzz both in industry publications with features in both AdAge and AdWeek on the same day, a week before the campaign went live, and in the popular media landing the No. 3 spot on the Viral Video Chart with almost 10 million views in the first week.

Responses were mixed with almost 40% of the reactions to “The State of Kentucky Fried Chicken Address” on YouTube being negative with many calling Hammond’s impression “creepy”. KFC has now moved forward with a second wave of ads replacing Hammond with fellow SNL-alum Norm MacDonald as the “real” Colonel. Like the first series, these have once again caused a stir with all three spots making the top 10 list of social ads with four million views and 12,000 social actions. Despite the character change, feelings are still mixed with more than 40% on YouTube giving the “The Real Colonel Sanders” on a thumbs down.

KFC CMO Kevin Hochman has been recently quoted calling the effort “phenomenally successful” but as a brand and business strategist, I can’t help but question his definition of success. There is certainly no doubt that the new ads have been successful at generating chatter about the brand, but it isn’t clear if it has had any impact on chicken sales and isn’t that really what this is all about?

To be fair, it is too soon to tell if the new campaign is making chicken fly out of the stores but initial results aren’t encouraging. KFC same stores sales were up 3% in Q2 but realizing that the same store sales were up 6% at the end of 2014 and 7% in Q1, sales growth has actually declined since the campaign launched. Q3 sales information won’t be reported until later this fall so we won’t know if the Q2 drop is an anomaly or if there is indeed such a thing as bad publicity and if these ads are repelling the target audience instead of creating a brand affinity? I have a hunch there might be, at least in this case.

I am one of the 40% who gives the new ads a thumbs down and it’s not just the “creepy” factor. In his chicken-selling prime, Colonel Sanders was admittedly quite a showman (and admittedly sometimes an odd bird) but his message was always about the chicken and his secret recipe. The new ads seem to be incredibly egocentric and the new Colonels seem to be all about the new Colonels (There is even a new website dedicated solely to the history of the Colonel). The chicken gets mentioned in passing in these new ads and the message revolves mostly around the budget friendly price point. Nothing in the ads makes me crave fried chicken and I happen to really like fried chicken.

As a 40-something working mother of two, maybe I am not the intended audience of this new campaign. The heavy use of social media seems to suggest KFC is looking to engage a new, younger audience. Millennials spend more on food eaten away from home than any other generation and with tens of millions of online engagements it seems likely the ads are getting the attention of at least some of the 68 million millennials. But will they give them the hankering for a crispy, golden drumstick? That is the real question. Millennials crave ethnically diverse, healthy meals with a social consciousness and despite this effort to “update the chain’s image”, KFC is still pushing old-fashioned comfort food.

So, if it turns out this current “publicity” won’t convert to future sales, what are the lessons we, as marketers, can learn?

  1. Before setting out to “refresh” your brand make sure you really understand the foundation of your brand. Is the KFC brand about a wacky guy (or guys) in a white suit or is it about delicious chicken or maybe even about something more profound?
  2. It isn’t enough just to attract attention, you need to strike a chord with people about something that matters to them. When you get past the novelty of celebrity impersonators, will anyone care that the Colonel “is back” or will they want to know just a little bit more about what’s in it for them?
  3. If you decide to go after a new audience, make sure you understand (and can satisfy) their needs and wants. Will adventure-seeking, health- and social-conscious millennials really go for fried chicken, mashed potatoes, a biscuit and a cookie even if it is only $5 or should KFC be more concerned about refreshing their menu?