From a $20,000 meteorite shaped like a chicken sandwich to a bonafide romance novella, the brand's marketing stunts this year grabbed consumer attention with a distinct flavor of deep-fried weirdness.
Launching a chicken sandwich into space. Selling a 400-year-old meteorite sculpted in the shape of said sandwich... for $20,000. Writing a 96-page romance novella that somehow upped the absurdity factor, with a Fabio-esque take on brand mascot Colonel Harland Sanders as the star.
None of these are your average marketing plays because KFC is anything but an average brand, as it's repeatedly proven throughout 2017.
The quick-serve staple, with the frequent help of creative agency Wieden+Kennedy, has evolved its marketing this year in ways that are equally odd and delightful, grabbing attention in an era of perilously short consumer focus. At the center of the strategy is Sanders, who was reintroduced to KFC's advertising in 2015 to spur a turnaround for the brand, which he continues to do via a rotating cast of actors, comedians and even WWE superstars filling the role. This year, that talent's been deployed for campaigns that have put clever spins on both fried chicken and digital technology, letting consumers lighten up during what are often humorless times.
"To stay true to our brand founder, we're constantly coming up with creative ideas and evolving our approach so it always feels different and unexpected," George Felix, director of advertising, KFC U.S., told Marketing Dive in a statement. "Channeling the Colonel's voice and incorporating an element of ridiculousness [...] is the main way we do that. Through everything, we remain authentic to the brand he created."
A recipe for success
KFC's marketing mix has included the aforementioned stunts, along with a road trip guided by Instagram influencers who compared GPS navigation to the Colonel's directions delivered via a cassette tape; animatronic drive-thru robots that used artificial intelligence to convert employees' voices into the Colonel's distinctive Southern drawl; and an intense virtual reality employee training program designed in the style of an escape room game.
We see social media as a way for our fans to engage with us in interesting and fun ways that don't feel self-serving or overly branded.
—George Felix, Director of Advertising, KFC U.S.
Its credo was perhaps best summed up, however, with the recent revelation that its Twitter page only follows 11 people: six named Herb and the five members of the Spice Girls, in a nod to the brand's signature 11 herbs and spices recipe. The stunt received no paid promotion from KFC but was instead sussed out by a Twitter user in October, acting solely as a fun Easter egg for followers to discover.
"We see social media as a way for our fans to engage with us in interesting and fun ways that don't feel self-serving or overly branded," Felix said.
As marketers become obsessed and even overwhelmed with keeping up with the serious demands of the digital age, these efforts have approached technology with a welcome wink and distinct flavor of weirdness that separates KFC from the pack. Beyond hitting home runs creatively, many of them also introduced new ideas or otherwise reinforced the areas where KFC is already succeeding.
Baking substance into style
The $20,000 meteorite wasn't just a deep-fried take on luxury shopping, for example, but rather a way to draw interest to an e-commerce site called KFC Ltd. that launched in July — one that's in the midst of a "product refresh" for the fall and winter seasons.
"While it may seem odd — a fried chicken purveyor selling funny, pop culture-relevant merchandise — it made perfect sense to us," Felix said. "When designing the initial limited-edition collection, we kept in mind what felt cool and authentic to the brand, rather than your run-of-the-mill merchandise."
The romance novella, which industry publication Adweek deemed "uncomfortably good," was done to show appreciation for Mother's Day, KFC's best-selling day of the year with an average 40% jump in sales.
That degree of business success is apparent from a top-down view as well, with 13 quarters of same-store growth sales since Q3 2014. KFC's parent company Yum Brands is generally seen as a marketing leader with a serious commitment to digital and mobile innovation. The company’s Taco Bell brand was recently named Mobile Marketer of the Year by Mobile Marketer, a sister publication of Marketing Dive.