W+K reinvented the Colonel. And then reinvented him again. How’s that for a Bucket List?
KFC is totally baller. I know this because my wife throws me terminal stink eye when she spies the bags and wrappers in my car. When your betrothed doesn’t want you to have something, that’s how you know it’s good. And when it comes to my KFC, the heart wants what the heart wants.
Original Recipe, Extra Crispy Strips, Popcorn chicken—the menu is a line listing of southern-fried chef-d’oeuvre, including the infamous breadless Double Down, which is the battered-chicken equivalent to wingsuit BASE jumping. Myocardial infarction trigger, your fretful GP warns? Pfft, worth it.
The advertising for KFC, however, has been a different story over the past two decades. In the early ’90s, Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC, which was, meh, okay, fine, I get it. But The Colonel—Colonel Harland David Sanders, the Jesus H. Christ of American brand figureheads—was, for some reason, unceremoniously relegated to El Chapo status with the other moldy spokespeople from that era, like Mr. Whipple and that terrifying Rosie from the Bounty commercials.
When the account moved to Wieden + Kennedy in 2015, the first thing they did was hit the venerable Colonel, who hadn’t appeared in a KFC ad since 1994, with the pop cultural defibrillator. And because it’s W+K, of course there was a little sprinkle of genius on top to go with the 11 secret herbs and spices. Namely, a cadre of Colonels, portrayed by a bizarre passel of finger-lickers that range from comedic actors like Darrell Hammond, Jim Gaffigan, Norm MacDonald and Rob Riggle, to the inspired George Hamilton (who else?), who hawked the Extra Crispy.
The latest iteration, for KFC’s Georgia Gold somewhat confoundingly features a gold-plated Billy Zane—because nothing says delectable chicken fare like the guy who made a popsicle out of Jack Dawson in “Titanic.”
I picked Jonathan Marshall’s (one of W+K’s copywriters on the account) brain for some insight about the brilliant resurrection of the Greatest Brand Spokesperson of all time.
Tell us what you do on the KFC account.
I’m a writer, and my art director partner, Helen Rhodes, and I have been working on KFC for almost two years. We worked with the entire KFC team here in the agency to concept and pitch the overall idea of rotating Colonels.
Where did the original concept come from? Was it a difficult sell?
The concept of bringing Colonel Sanders back just made too much sense to require much work selling it. The Colonel is KFC, and even 30 years after his death he remains the brand’s iconic figure. His passion for fried chicken and his over-the-top personality made him the ultimate spokesperson when he was alive, so bringing him back [in our own way] was just the obvious first step. The ultimate goal was to bring the Colonel’s voice back into everything KFC.
And the rotating Colonels twist…?
The idea of rotating Colonels, however, came later in the process and honestly just popped up as a funny idea we never thought would work. It kind of goes against everything that you’re supposed to do, which is why I think it has been so well received. Changing the celebrity spokesperson every few months just feels wrong, and I remember starting the first pitch deck with something like “Don’t say no to this immediately.” Strangely enough, nobody really ever said no. It didn’t take a lot of talking into. So the fact that we’re where we are is a testament to how great our clients are.
How far into the campaign have you already planned out?
The concept calls for a new Colonel with each unique campaign. Given that we run three or four big campaigns a year, we’re pretty much constantly concepting new Colonels. Each new campaign is a blank slate and has a distinct look and feel that makes the Colonel selection very important. We’ve figured out the process works best when we concept an idea, think about who we want early on, and then try to write the work in their voice.
Rob Riggle, for instance, was perfect as the Coach of The Kentucky Buckets—so we just wrote the spots with him in mind before even asking if he’s interested. For the new Georgia Gold campaign we needed confident sophistication and class— when our ECD Eric Baldwin suggested Billy Zane early on, it made writing the work much easier… just imagining how he would deliver a line, and how he would present himself.
How have past spokesperson campaigns inspired your work for KFC?
Honestly, the original Colonel Sanders was pretty much all of the inspiration we needed. At the beginning of this process a team went to Louisville and brought back all kinds of old Colonel stuff: books, videos, ads, etc. He was one of the original brand spokespeople and did his fair share of crazy marketing stunts, so we just kind of thought, “What would the Colonel do to bring some buzz back to his brand?”
I’ve done a lot of work on brands that have iconic spokespeople, and as a creative, it’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s great because your work is halfway done when the brief comes in, but it does limit what you’re working with. There are only so many ways Mr. Peanut can talk about nut mixes—trust me, I also wrote the campaign that gave him a voice for the first time. So, a concern with bringing back the Colonel was that we’d get stuck in the rut of spokespeople campaigns and nobody wants to write the same spot for five years.
So, in hindsight, maybe we developed the rotating Colonel idea as a subconscious defense mechanism to give us something fun to play with. We have a Colonel, we know we have to use the Colonel, but each campaign is completely different and fresh. That helps a ton.