The Return of Sanders

2 min read

Recently, KFC hired Saturday Night Live’s Darrell Hammond to play Colonel Sanders in a new series of television spots. Sanders, as a mascot, has gone unused for the last 21 years, during which time the chain lost significant ground to Chick-fil-A. With less than half as many stores, Chick-fil-A still outsold KFC by nearly $2 billion in 2014.

So what are we to make of this return of Sanders? Is this a risky move, or is KFC playing it safe? Resurrecting an old mascot seems reactionary—an appeal to an audience that will grow warmly nostalgic for ads last seen more than two decades ago. Yet when polling showed that 1 in 5 people hated the new commercials, CEO Greg Creed told Business Insider he was delighted.

“I am actually quite happy that 20% hate it, because now they at least have an opinion,” said Creed. “You can market to love and hate; you cannot market to indifference.”

As the old axiom goes, there’s no such thing as bad press. But can that same idea be applied to marketing? Some companies seem to think so—back in January, GoDaddy pulled a much-reviled Superbowl ad after an outcry on social media, yet speculation abounded that it was a publicity stunt from day one, especially given the company’s history of sleazy ads. And while GoDaddy has long suffered from a lousy reputation, it dominates the domain registrar marketplace anyway.

By comparison, KFC’s commercials may seem to be the safe option. In practice, however, this is actually not the case.

It doesn’t take much analysis to understand that the GoDaddy ads are not actually all that risky for the brand. For one thing, they say nothing about the actual services that are provided, and you learn nothing about the company itself. For another, no intelligent marketing agency would present ads this sleazy without an understanding of the negative reactions they elicit. These are commercials specifically targeted at irritating their audience, and they work. Sleazy? Yes. Gross? Sure. But risky? Not even a little bit. These ads do exactly what they set out to do.

KFC’s campaign is different. The move to reintroduce Colonel Sanders isn’t risky because it might offend or come off as sleazy. It’s risky because it reaffirms the brand’s core identity. When a company is being outsold, it’s tempting to imitate a more successful competitor. But after years of menu changes, new brand strategies, and even changes to its logo, KFC has made the conscious decision to bring back the man himself—Colonel Sanders.

Love the ads or hate them, what can’t be argued is that Colonel Sanders, both as man and mascot, is fundamentally ingrained into the identity of KFC. These ads signal that KFC has looked at the marketplace and decided—numbers be damned—they’re still the best there is at what they do. That’s the kind of statement that requires taking a risk.