KFC has long been the leader in fast food fried chicken. However, the growing Chick-fil-A chain is proving to be serious domestic competition, surpassing KFC in 2014 to become the number one chicken chain in the U.S. by sales, with just a fraction of the number of stores. With lagging relevance amongst millennials—research suggests that some 60 percent of this audience has never eaten KFC—and a challenging year behind it, KFC is rebooting its brand by returning to its roots.
KFC celebrated its 75th birthday by bringing back the Colonel Sanders mascot, who had a widely positive appeal and strong association with quality, according to the company’s research. Announcing the Colonel’s return on Twitter in May, KFC launched a series of humorous, vintage-inspired ads in which the Colonel, played by Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond, claimed that he was back to ensure that his chicken was just as “finger lickin’ good” as he left it. The campaign was polarizing, but drew a huge spike in sales in the four weeks following its launch. KFC revived the buzz in August with new ads featuring a different Colonel—this time played by another SNL alum, comedian Norm Macdonald. In a comic twist, Macdonald’s Sanders claimed that the previous Colonel was an impostor
Part of KFC’s efforts included reclaiming its full name, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the brand is refurbishing its stores by incorporating classic décor, red-and-white striped packaging, and old-timey uniforms to accompany its updated menu. In April, parent company, Yum! Brands, announced a USD $185 million investment to support the store makeovers, update restaurant equipment, and drive additional advertising. A turnaround is well underway in the U.S., where KFC just closed its fifth consecutive quarter of growth in same-store sales and transactions.
However, KFC has faced its greatest challenge in China, where it is the largest restaurant chain, with more than 4,500 locations. Yum! Brands was amongst the many companies affected by the country’s widespread meat contamination scandal. KFC suffered a steep drop in Chinese sales, which fell 14 percent in the third quarter of 2014. A turnaround in China has been sluggish—in September 2015, same-store sales rose a modest 3 percent from the previous quarter. To manage a slower-than-expected recovery, Yum! Brands recently spun off its Chinese businesses into the new franchise, Yum! China, which is “working with urgency” to improve sales for all brands.
Meanwhile, KFC itself has been working hard to earn back the trust of consumers. In an attempt to do so, each KFC will display the regional farm where its chicken is sourced, and it has added new items like rice bowls to its menu. By returning to its “original recipe” of quality, and engaging consumers, KFC hopes to regain its number one spot in the U.S. and remain a finger lickin’ favorite around the world.