KFC customers hate the Colonel, and the CEO says that's led to the brand's incredible 'breakthrough'

George Hamilton+SunscreenKFCThe ‘Extra-Crispy Colonel’ campaign was a major driver for KFC’s sales in the third quarter.

One-and-a-half years after Colonel Sanders’ return to KFC marketing, the chain is in full comeback mode.

On Wednesday, KFC reported that US same-store sales increased 6% compared to the same quarter last year, a growth of 8% compared to the same quarter in 2014.

“I wouldn’t say it was an abrupt change,” Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed said in a call with analysts on Thursday, in response to a question on Taco Bell and KFC’s impressive quarter. “KFC US just delivered its 9th consecutive quarter of same-store sales growth.”

Creed attributed KFC’s growth, following what executives have called “decades” of stagnant sales, to “distinctive and disruptive advertising and positioning,” as well as “breakthrough marketing.”

The biggest change in marketing KFC that made in the last two years is indisputably bringing back Colonel Sanders.

Kfc norm macdonaldKFCNorm Macdonald as Colonel Sanders.

When KFC announced the return of the Colonel in May 2015, some customers were less than pleased.

At the time, Creed said of the new campaign,
“So far the response has been about 80% positive, 20% hate it. And I am actually quite happy that 20% hate it, because now they at least have an opinion. They’re actually talking about KFC, and you can market to love and hate; you cannot market to indifference.”

Creed’s emphasis on emotion — even negative emotion — over indifference has paid off over the last year and a half in quarter after quarter of sales growth, despite generally sluggish sales in the restaurant industry. Since Darrell Hammond brought KFC’s founder back from the dead, comedians including Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton, and, most recently, Rob Riggle have taken on the role in advertising.

Hamilton’s role as the “Extra-Crispy Colonel” demonstrated just how important the Colonel’s role can be. Hamilton’s Colonel represented just one product, Extra Crispy Chicken, in a campaign that Yum says drove much of KFC’s sales growth in the third quarter.

Extra CrispyKFCPrior to the Extra Crispy campaign, KFC says many customers didn’t know that the crunchier chicken was an option.

While the Colonel has been the most obvious change at KFC during the turnaround, the brand has also made some more subtle changes. There is more attention to quality, with restaurant remodelings, a public recommitment to quality called “Re-Colonelization,” and new regional items with a more culinary-bent to the menu, such as Nashville Hot Chicken and Georgia Gold Honey Mustard BBQ.

However, at KFC, all these changes point back to the Colonel, who has become a symbol of quality and “doing things the hard way” at the chain — something that the brand hopes Sanders will soon represent to the general public as well.

KFC was a bright spot for parent company Yum Brands in the third quarter, as the company reported weaker than expected earnings Wednesday due to struggles in China. Same-store sales — at locations open for at least one year — fell by 1% in the country, missing analysts’ forecast for a gain by 4.1%, with Yum blaming tension in the
South China Sea.

NOW WATCH: A teen built a KFC chicken vending machine made entirely of Lego blocks — here’s how it works

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.