100 Days of Pop: Episode 22 The Colonel

KFC turns Colonel Sanders into a very millennial virtual Instagram influencer and I gotta talk about it.  On this episode of the Pop100, We talk KFC and how they tapped into the iconic power of their Colonel to become Pop-Marketing royalty.

Last week, KFC once again took over the pop-culture headlines when they released their own virtual Instagram Influencer version of the Colonel onto the world. Let me lie that sink in a bit. They created a completely CGI millennial version of the Colonel. Not an actor, not a model, but a fake human.  See the meta here. They have a made-up character that influences people through his love of all things chicken portraying a made up character that influences through his love of chicken.

Over the last few years, the idea of lifestyle Instagram influencers have been on the rise and with documentaries like Fyrefest, this concept has seeped further into the broader zeitgeist. This new insta-colonel comes pre-baked with all those cliche social influencer cliches.  He cooks with clean ingredients in a spotless kitchen, has rock hard abs, talks a lot about the “hustle lifestyle” of selling chicken and living his passion, uses too many trending hashtags and he even has his own brand sponsored posts with brands like Old Spice.

This idea goes even further by tapping into the trending topic of fake news, deep fakes and the rise of the virtual influencer.  Yeah, it’s an actual thing. Like Lil Miquela have over 1 million followers and the term virtual influencer has danced across dozens of 2019 marketing trend reports over the last 6 months.

So you can see how this idea fits contextually with popular culture, but it’s only half of the equation.  What about the Colonel? How did KFC man an old southern white guy relevant again? And probably more importantly, how does any of this sell chicken?

In 2015 KFC had problems.  Product quality and business had declined, competitors like ChikFila were on the incline and eating directly into KFC’s business. Their marketing, similar to McDonald's had relied too much on mirroring their audience and lost its ability to say anything interesting and had become extremely forgettable. So forgettable that 3-5 millennials hadn’t ever even tried KFC.  

Also in 2015, KFC hired legendary independent advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy as their agency of record.  

What W+K brought to the table wasn’t a new advertising campaign but something much more valuable.  They created a branding engine that could power both advertising, content, and actions over the long haul and the engine would be powered by the brand treasures that KFC had somehow lost along the way.

What are these?  

  1. Colonel Sanders

  2. The red & white stripes and the globally recognized bucket of chicken

  3. Finger Licking Good Chicken

  4. The 11 Secret Herbs & Spices

These were KFC’s secret weapons. The things that have built equity in popular culture for over 50 years.   

They already had a pop culture icon in the Colonel, they just needed to unlock the stored energy that laid dormant in the character.

This simple yet effective approach started turning the ship around almost immediately.

By the end of the first year of the campaign, sales were up and the millennial trial was up 45%.

The ad campaign (the one that’s still functioning today) is a perfect example of this engine.  They brought the Colonel back but they did so by fusing the colonel persona with different celebrities that would put on the famous white suit and string tie.

11 colonels later, you can see how the engine works.  The colonel can change and evolve whenever needed, becoming eternal always refreshing and becoming new.  It’s an equation, unlocking a new idea with every rebirth. Now that I think of it, it’s not so different from Doctor Who, who’s character persists through many interpretations, always making it their own, while keeping core traits.

It even creates anticipation to see who will portray the colonel next. The more they feed the engine the more equity it builds.  This year things have gotten even more meta with a Peter Weller voiced Robo-Cop Colonel, built to protect the secret recipe. Partnerships with WWE and DC Comics creating a jacked up pro-wrestling character and a team of super-powered Colonel Sanders from all over the multi-verse and now with this insta-Colonel, we really begin to see how elastic this idea can become.

But KFC’s pop-marketing engine goes beyond just commercials.  Within a handful of years and by using the same focused branding engine, they’ve quickly mastered the art of earned media through content & actions.  Or more easily explained by Faris & Rosie Yakob, through doing cool things and then telling people about it.

Consistently flexing their relevancy within the popular culture by creating a series of stunts and actions that are only connected through those brand treasures we mentioned earlier.

For example- all of these things have happened in the last few years.

  • They came out with nail polish that tasted and smelled like Chicken-  Finger lick’n good

  • They released a tanning lotion that smelled like chicken-  Crispy chicken

  • They famously only followed 11 people on Twitter.  Each one of the Spice Girls and 6 guys named Herb, rewarding the guy who discovered this w/ an oil painting of him and the Colonel.

  • When they ran out of chicken in the UK they bought full-page newspaper ad to apologize, rearranging the letters in their name. - Again- using

  • They published a romance novel based on Colonel Sanders fan-fiction

  • Created an Internet escape pod allowing you and your friends a safe space from GOT spoilers

  • Released a chicken-themed online shop full of pop culture goodness around the love of fried chicken, including a Colonel Sanders Twosie and these extremely creepy Colonel Sanders Halloween costumes.

  • They Paid college tuition to parents that wanted to name their kid Harland

  • Put the first chicken in space

Remember- It’s not the stunts themselves that are innovative. It’s the consistency of them that lets us know that it’s a strategic part of their pop-marketing engine.  

Marketers-  Listen up. You may not have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on your marketing, but no matter what space or size of the brand you work with, there are 2 big lessons here.

Focus, Focus, Focus-  You don’t need to save the world to be relevant.  Know what you’re known for and double down. This makes sure that seemingly unconnected actions are all banking equity in the same place.  You gotta pull away from the short term and make sure everything you do contributes to long term gains as well.

Create engines, not campaigns-  this is an important one. How many brands do you see that are still hunting down the next campaign?  Constantly switching look and feel for whatever promotion is in front of them? Does your marketing feel more like an engine that can consistently produce the things you need without consuming all of the energy of a new campaign?   

I hope you dug this dive into KFC’s Pop-Marketing strategy. Hit me up with any actions I may have missed or your favorite Colonel. For more Pop-Marketing goodness you can subscribe to my channel on YouTube or hit up pop-marketer.com and signup to my pop-marketing newsletter with bi-weekly pop-marketing goodness.  Thanks so much spending this time with me, I’m Joe Cox, the Pop-Marketer and I’ll catch you later.

Joe Cox