KFC Colonel's New Edge Is a Nod to His Past

Chain's U.S. CMO Hints More Colonel Ideas Could Come From Past Marketing

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1960s Colonel Sanders Comic Book
1960s Colonel Sanders Comic Book Credit: Courtesy KFC
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When KFC plucked Darrell Hammond from the role of Colonel Sanders, passing the closet of white suits to Norm Macdonald, many wondered whether the chicken chain was disappointed with its spring campaign.

But KFC U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Kevin Hochman called the Hammond-led effort "phenomenally successful."

"We had tremendous buzz and our sales were better than what we had expected," said Mr. Hochman, who joined Yum-owned KFC in 2014 after nearly two decades at Procter & Gamble.

The latest reinvention of the Colonel was in the works as soon as the marketing push starring Mr. Hammond began, Mr. Hochman said. As the spring campaign was rolling out, Wieden & Kennedy presented KFC with three options for the next round of ads, two starring Mr. Hammond and a third with a new celebrity.

"I remember thinking, 'Are you guys absolutely crazy?'" Mr. Hochman said. "They said that they thought they could evolve this thing to be almost like a James Bond character where you flow in different characters."

Mr. Hochman declined to say when Mr. Hammond might be completely phased out, noting that he still has a contract with KFC, and slyly mentioning an imposter Colonel.

In one of the new spots, Mr. Hammond appears on a TV and introduces himself as Colonel Sanders but Mr. Macdonald, who is watching the TV, says he's the real Colonel Sanders. In another, Mr. Macdonald says it has come to his attention that there's an imposter colonel out there. It's perhaps a nod to the 1960s, when two Colonels appeared on a comic book cover and one was called an imposter.

Mr. Hochman said KFC is using its founder's values, along with some of his wacky real-life moments, to keep sales rolling. He rattled off details such as Harland Sanders dyeing his beard white until it naturally turned that color with age, the existence of a record from The Colonel's Mandolin Band, and how he defended an employee in a gunfight. A gunslinging colonel now appears as part of a retro-style video game the chain released online.

Past KFC commercials may hint at what's to come. One bizarre ad that aired in 1967 featured the founder strapped to a lie detector by three women who wanted his secret recipe.

"This guy was very, very deliberate at selling chicken and being this advertising showman," said Mr. Hochman. "Whether it's the Colonel, or his values, or our bucket, or red and white, or finger lickin' good ... a marketer would just die to have these things on a brand, right? And, quite frankly, we haven't leveraged those things for a long, long time."

KFC's U.S. same-store sales rose 3% in the second quarter, up from a 2% drop a year earlier, but down from 7% growth in the first quarter of 2015. Mr. Hochman wouldn't speak about results in the current quarter, but said "we've been very pleased with the campaign."