KFC U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Zahumensky was in New York on Thursday with her team to accept top honors at Ad Age‘s A-List & Creativity Awards Gala, where “The Return of Colonel Sanders” won campaign of the year. The “Re-Colonelization” of KFC in its domestic market since 2015 also has won an Effie Award, boosted sales and reinvigorated the brand with creative marketing including its first female Colonel Sanders, with Reba McEntire debuting as Colonel Reba in January.
Now KFC is bringing back one of its most popular celebrity Colonels to date, with actor and producer George Hamilton reprising his role as the KFC Crispy Colonel, which he originated in 2016. The Hollywood legend told us at KFC’s press launch event in New York that he met Harland Sanders back when they were both guests on a radio show in Ohio, and he found the original Colonel Sanders charming with a sly twinkle in his eye.
“We talked for about an hour and he made a lasting impression on me—he’d lived a full life and he was a fascinating man—so I’m thrilled to be back as the Extra Crispy Colonel,” Hamilton commented.
Donning the white suit and goatee in a tropical setting again, this time KFC puts Hamilton on a boat, the K.F.Sea, where he’s crooning as a suave entertainer with a knowing wink to his own crispy tanned persona. He directs the action as he promotes the debut of the Crispy Colonel chicken sandwich in three new flavors—with Smoky Mountain BBQ, spicy and smoky Nashville Hot and sweet and tangy Georgia Gold honey mustard BBQ joining the classic sandwich—on Monday, April 23.
It’s an amusing yet critical launch for KFC as it combats chicken sandwiches by Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s with its own piping hot and fresh (made to order) sandwich menu, as KFC’s Zahumensky told us in a chat:
Andrea, you’ve been having fun with the Colonel, introducing the first female Colonel Sanders in January. How was that chapter in this evolving story of the Colonel received by customers?
America fell in love with Colonel Reba. She’s just as charming and she really went for it. She really embodies the spirit of Colonel Sanders, and just as we hoped that came through in the work.
A big reason we picked her is she is so broadly appealing. She transcends women, country music or any particular demographic—she just has so much appeal and love. What we had hoped to see was a lift across our business, and that’s precisely what we saw with her as our Colonel.
And now you’ve got George Hamilton coming back. What inspired this next Colonel?
George has been a very loved Colonel, and the reason we brought him back is he was not just loved by America and very memorable as one of our Colonels, but he also did an incredible job of making America know about our Extra Crispy chicken. A lot of people think we just have the Original Recipe, they don’t know we have both. When it came time to launch the sandwich, which is also piping hot and Extra Crispy, who better to let America know about that than our Extra Crispy Colonel, who can be played by none other than George Hamilton? People really connected with him as the Extra Crispy Colonel.
The campaign alludes to the sandwich being perfect for the on-the-go, on-demand lifestyle. Do you plan to play up your mobile app as part of the messaging to consumers?
Making KFC more easy and accessible is absolutely a priority for us. We just created a really unique partnership with Grubhub and that is going to be a key component for us. We’re working aggressively on this and we now have Grubhub in over 100 of our stores, and we’re working through all the operations of that as we want to make sure we roll this out the right way. We’re really excited about this partnership because our customers want to be able to access KFC on their terms, where they are. Our partnership with Grubhub is going to enable that to happen.
You’ve been on a listening tour these past few months, talking to customers and franchisees and employees. What are you hearing that people really connect with in terms of the KFC brand as well as the Colonel as a brand in his own right?
It’s been really fun getting out and spending time in the restaurants and with customers. Fried chicken is on the rise in America. Our customers, and people across the country, are craving fried chicken like never before. Most people have great memories of Kentucky Fried Chicken, even if they haven’t been recently—it’s part of our American DNA, and the Colonel plays such an important part of that.
He’s perceived as a real person to people still, not as a made-up character. People see him as Harland Sanders, who lived the American dream. He was a bit older when he founded Kentucky Fried Chicken, he had many jobs before that, and he was passionate and a showman and really went for his dreams, which is a story that people and our customers really connect with. So the fact that we still hand-prepare in our restaurants this delicious fried chicken along with this iconic figure in Colonel Sanders, who birthed this brand, that’s real magic.
What are you learning about the Art of the Colonel, with a female Colonel, a comeback Colonel, even two Colonels in the marketplace at the same time with a WWE Colonel? How do you keep a brand icon fresh and flex while staying true to the brand’s values and DNA?
That’s a great question. This year has been really exciting for us for exactly that reason. We have pushed into new territory with the Colonel, and it’s just demonstrating the extent to which the Colonel is loved and the legs that this campaign has.
Anyone who embodies the values of the Colonel can play the Colonel, and we’re really proving that out this year. It makes me excited for the future because we can take this brand and this campaign in so many directions because we’re seeing customers come along with us on this journey. There are so many other extensions we can have to this campaign.
Anything interesting that’s happening with KFC in other markets beyond the U.S.?
Canada just launched a Waffle Double Down Sandwich—two chicken filets with a waffle and maple syrup—so that’s been interesting to see. We’re pushing out the boundaries here in the U.S., and it’s great to see our partners around the world also push out in interesting areas as well. It just proves the breadth of this brand because customers appreciate our heritage, they’re rooting for us and they want us to be involved in the culture.