Have you seen him? He’s on-air and online, wandering through highway underpasses and baseball fields with a big bucket of chicken.
Why, hello. It’s me. The Colonel.
Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), sold the company in 1964 but appeared in countless ads for the brand through the 60s and 70s – a big old-fashioned man with Southern fried charm. But Colonel Sanders was more than a real-life spokesperson for the brand – he became a larger-than-life brand equity, a Big Daddy Tennessee Williams style matriarch presented as master of his chicken universe. Even with cane in hand, the Colonel had a formidable power. You believed he was a trusted protector of real meals in the age of fast food, and a true chicken benefactor. In the days before Chick-fil-A and Church’s, when Americans wanted fried chicken, they went to the Colonel. They had a relationship with him.
Although the Colonel passed in 1980, the power of his image continued as the central force in the brand’s identity – his smiling mug was part of the logo, on packaging, and in-store. But the meaning of the Colonel shifted with the passing of a real human presence. Gone was the man who built a business on a chicken recipe, and in its place was a genteel face that was no longer responsible for the chicken, just selling the chicken.
Today, the Colonel is being resurrected in a 75th anniversary campaign where we are witness to a brand evolving, building new meaning from the old to evolve its brand equity.
KFC is quite familiar with equity evolution. In the early 1990s, the company chose to drop the “Kentucky,” the “Fried,” and the “Chicken” in order to exist solely as KFC. Although the Colonel’s face still greeted us from every bucket, lost were those attributes that may have seemed culturally irrelevant (e.g. fried) or confining to a singular protein (e.g. chicken) or less meaningful to the brand (e.g. Kentucky).
“That was a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Rachel Bernard, VP, Verbal Strategy at CBX. “The distancing from fried in a culture consumed by Subway Eat Fresh campaigns seemed sound, but abstracting to initials, or empty vessel naming, makes your other equities have to work harder.”
Ultimately, the Colonel became the ONLY thing that spoke to the KFC brand’s robust heritage. With his vintage glasses and goatee, his graphic presence communicated the authentic southern pride behind this brand. We still imagined Colonel Sanders as a man of dignity, a man trusted for many years.
Well, adios equity dignity.
In the new campaign, Colonel Sanders tours the American landscape in a dementia-like state, snickering like a cartoon farmer in the big city, using his cane to pull up lady’s skirts. It’s a pretty serious move. The brand is playing the strongest equity card it has for potentially polarizing laughs, essentially risking the power of its value.
From an equity standpoint, there are a couple of best-case scenarios for the Colonel: either enough people appreciate this character to engender positive brand meaning for a new generation, or he just fades away without doing any major damage.
As any 75-year-old brand knows, only time will tell.