KFC Plans to Launch Sandwich -- Into Orbit -- With New Colonel

Rob Lowe Pitches Chicken Chain's Zinger

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KFC has stratospheric aspirations for its Zinger fried chicken sandwich.

After 33 years of selling the spicy sandwich in other countries, the Zinger makes its U.S. debut on April 24. And KFC plans to send a Zinger into space this summer. It has the marketing campaign to prove it.

"The brief we gave Wieden & Kennedy, our advertising agency, is we want the most talked about launch in fast food this year," said Kevin Hochman, who became KFC's U.S. president and chief concept officer last month after three years as its chief marketing officer.

One way KFC aims to generate some buzz is hiring Rob Lowe as the latest celebrity in its ever-expanding list of colonels. Instead of the typical Colonel Harland Sanders suit, Lowe is wearing a spacesuit version in a nod to the upcoming stunt.

KFC - Zinger
KFC - Zinger Credit: KFC

"Can you actually launch KFC's world-famous Zinger chicken sandwich into space?" Lowe asks in a new 90-second digital spot. "And the answer is, we certainly hope so. Our entire marketing campaign depends on it."

The ad is the first 90-second spot in the chain's colonel campaign. A 30-second version will run on TV beginning Sunday.

As far as the space stunt goes, while details are scarce, Hochman said. "I've never seen anything like this."

KFC is clearly not the first marketer to send its brand up in the air. Toshiba's space chair stunt happened in 2009. Fans of Natural Light beer claimed to send the brew to space two years later. Red Bull's daredevil and a can of the drink soared 120,000 feet high in 2012, and a Jose Cuervo margarita was shaken 100,000 feet up in 2015.

The campaign has a bit of a throwback feel and is nostalgic for Lowe. His grandfather, who was head of the Ohio chapter of the National Restaurant Association in the 1960s, took him to meet Col. Sanders years ago, he recalled in a statement.

"I thought this would be a nice homage to both Colonel Sanders and to my grandfather," said Lowe, the movie and TV actor whose best-known commercials until now were a series of DirecTV spots.

"Not competitive enough"

It's not often an executive admits to having a sub-par product. Hochman clearly has been longing to serve up a better chicken sandwich.

"We're not exactly first to the game on chicken sandwiches, right?" he said in an interview.

Yes, KFC had chicken sandwiches. But until recently they were made with frozen rather than fresh chicken. "Quite frankly, it's not competitive enough," Hochman said of KFC's sandwiches, such as the now discontinued Doublicious.

KFC sees interest growing in sandwiches, where it's been a small player. Sandwiches account for 40% of all fried chicken servings sold at U.S. fast food restaurants, Hochman said. They're easier to eat on the go than bone-in pieces, appeal to lunchtime diners, and women prefer chicken sandwiches more than other products, he said.

But sandwiches currently account for about 3% of sales or less at KFC, depending on the location.

Bringing the Zinger to the U.S. has taken about two years. The Zinger, however, is now new. It is now served in about 120 countries, following its launch in Trinidad and Tobago back in 1984.

What took so long? One issue: KFC's U.S. kitchens were not configured to allow workers to quickly bread, fry and assemble a sandwich. So KFC spent $80 million over about two years to get some new equipment. It also trained staff, who began preparing fresh chicken for sandwiches last year with the chicken tenders served in the Chicken Littles sandwich, gearing up for the Zinger.

Sales volume of that smaller sandwich has doubled over the last six months, Hochman said. It was essentially relaunched with Crispy Colonel ads featuring George Hamilton last summer, followed by Vincent Kartheiser's Nashville Hot version and Billy Zane promoting the Georgia Gold flavor.

Smaller chains already promote fresh, never frozen fried chicken, including tenders-focused Raising Cane's and PDQ, which says its name stands for People Dedicated to Quality. Plus, Shake Shack has seen much success with its Chick'n Shack sandwich.

"We welcome competition like that because it does upgrade people's expectations," Hochman said.

In fast food, Chick-fil-A is the nation's leading chicken-centric chain by a wide margin. Burger giants have long served fried chicken sandwiches, typically prepared with frozen chicken even at Wendy's, which prides itself on fresh-never-frozen beef. The Zinger may help KFC gain more market share and extend its streak of 10 consecutive quarters of growth in U.S. same-store sales and transactions.

"I think it's a good alignment with the brand, it certainly makes them more competitive and it offers a better quality to their customer who may be willing to upgrade," said Technomic Chief Insights Officer Darren Tristano.

After all of that effort, will the Zinger stick around? It seems likely, but not definite. For now, it is only set to be sold or 14 weeks, at $3.99 on its own or for $5 as a Fill Up with potato wedges, a cookie, and a medium drink.

"We all are hoping it can earn its way on the menu permanently," Hochman said.

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