Catherine Tan-Gillespie details how evolution, quality control, and the pausing of its iconic tagline have kept KFC’s finger-lickin’ fans hungry for more.
Interview by Kieran McLoone, deputy editor for Global Franchise
It’s impossible to talk about legacy franchise brands, especially those within the restaurant industry, and not acknowledge the enduring impact of Colonel Sanders and his sought-after recipe of 11 secret herbs and spices.
The Kentucky Fried Chicken that we know today has its roots in the early 1950s when Colonel Harland Sanders sold his first franchise location in Salt Lake City, Utah. Coming off the back of a successful career selling fried chicken in a roadside restaurant in Kentucky, Sanders knew he was on to something big. This was shown by the fact that by 1956, KFC already had around eight franchisees; including Dave Thomas, who would go on to found the Wendy’s brand in 1969.
What the Colonel might not have known, however, is that KFC would eventually expand to 24,000 locations across more than 145 countries – with 98 per cent of those sites owned and operated by franchisees.
And while KFC is now recognized as an adaptable brand that shifts in light of customer demand, one simple pillar has allowed this legacy organization to flourish for decades: consistency.
“KFC remains the same brand that the Colonel created over 65 years ago,” says Catherine Tan-Gillespie, global chief marketing officer for KFC. “We’ve changed a bit because every good marketer knows that if you don’t change, you’ll get left behind. What matters is who we are at our core, and the Colonel’s values are still very much alive and well inside our brand; you can see them in our craveable food, in our original people, our service, and our restaurants.”
Adaptation is a big part of any international brand, and while KFC sells its signature finger-lickin’ chicken the world over, it has experimented with a variety of unique menu items in many of its international markets.
“Every good marketer knows that if you don’t change, you’ll get left behind”
KFC Singapore, for example, serves up a KFC breakfast complete with original recipe porridge, shallots, spring onion, and chunks of fried chicken. Fly on over to KFC Vietnam, and you can order a rice bowl complete with a seaweed wrap for your fried chicken, and a side of mochi.
There are also some timely menu evolutions which aren’t necessarily focused on adapting to local tastes, but instead making sure that KFC’s offering is as welcoming and inclusive as possible: “Fried chicken is what we do best, and we’re always innovating to meet changing consumer expectations and preferences,” says Tan-Gillespie. “For example, we’ve trialed plant-based products, which were tested in places like the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. The trials went so well that we’ve added the plant-based option as a permanent menu item in some markets.”
Despite the evolving menu, however, KFC’s iconic red branding remains identical at all of its international sites; an aspect of the franchise which has led to it being instantly recognizable, no matter where you are.
“We focus on being a R.E.D. (relevant, easy, and distinctive) brand and that same message is shared with each market we operate in,” says Tan-Gillespie. “We have a global brand positioning so no matter where you’re at in the world, when you think of KFC, it should be about finger-lickin’ good food, done the right way, in the spirit of the Colonel.”
The face of fried chicken
Although he sold the KFC brand in 1964 when he was 73 years old, Colonel Sanders is still attached to virtually every piece of the franchise’s marketing output as the undeniable face of fried chicken.
“Fried chicken is what we do best, and we’re always innovating to meet changing consumer expectations and preferences”
While the Colonel’s popularity never waned, the brand did emphasize his significance in the 2010s; initially tapping Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond to play the Colonel in a series of advertisements, and later enlisting the help of numerous actors and comedians like Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, and Ray Liotta to enter the titular role.
“We’re actually very fortunate that our brand has several distinctive, iconic brand assets: our signature bucket, our red and white stripes, our famous ‘It’s Finger Lickin’ Good’ tagline, and of course, our founder, Colonel Sanders,” says Tan-Gillespie. “There are very few brands that can say their logo was or is a real person. At one time, he was one of the most recognizable people in the world and he is what makes us the iconic and original brand that so many people have grown to love.”
In light of this year’s pandemic, however, KFC superfans will no doubt notice that one of the brand’s key assets has been temporarily postponed: the ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ tagline.
To encourage safe food consumption during these unusual times, the 68-year-old franchise has shown its age hasn’t impacted its timeliness by rolling out its first-ever global marketing campaign, in which its signature tagline has been censored across all marketing materials.
“We have a huge role to play in using our size and scale for good through our food, our people, and limiting our impact on the planet,” says Tan-Gillespie. “As we took time to reflect on today’s global climate, we found ourselves in a unique situation – having an iconic slogan that doesn’t quite fit in the current environment. The thing we’d told our KFC fans to do for the last 64 years didn’t feel right.”
While the tagline is set to return “just when the time is right”, its temporary removal exemplifies the staying power of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everything the brand does is built on the foundations created many decades ago, but as a franchisor, it gives franchisees the space to offer exactly what respective markets need.
“We take pride in our legendary brand, and although customers now access us through digital and delivery channels, we will always remain the same original, feisty and confident brand the Colonel envisioned all those years ago.”