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KFC Doubles Down on a Dumb Ad Campaign

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The sky is falling, and KFC is trying to make chicken salad out of chicken scratch.

KFC, a unit of Yum Brands, has switched the actors who portray company founder Col. Harland Sanders, swapping in marginally talented Saturday Night Live alum Norm Macdonald to replace marginally talented Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond.

It's is an odd move. The idea that an actor change will make the ad campaign any easier to swallow is nonsense, since it isn't the actor but the role that so many consumers don't like. The real-life Harland Sanders was complicated, and he was authentic. Yes, Sanders lived his life as if he were in character, but he played that part well, far better than Hammond could and MacDonald can.

The new Colonel is a caricature, carefuly choreographed by the company and its creative hired hands. Instead of resurrecting the Colonel to lead KFC's sales back to their former fried glory, the company has instead unleashed a childish pantomime that people old enough to remember Colonel Sanders don't like and people too young to know him can't possibly understand. 

It's tricky to exorcise the dead, which is why it's so rarely done and why it always leads to bad consequences, whether it's with a Oujia board, Pet Semetary or a $185 million investment from your parent company to spruce up your brand.

What's more, KFC is trying to sanitize Sanders' image, even though, in this day and age when many people glorify the role of the entrepreneur, it doesn't need a comic cleansing. Harland Sanders had a string of failed businesses, left his first family in the dust, had a temper that caused him to brawl with associates, knew his customers better than his competitors and wore the same outfit every day to polish his image. Yes, before there was a Steve Jobs, there was a Colonel Sanders. The truth should be enough.

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Yet, KFC, in a feint to its authentic roots, has opted to fake the history, focusing on the banjos and white limosuines, which belies the intelligence and vision that helped Sanders create Kentucky Fried Chicken in the first place -- an intelligence that today's consumers, particularly the sought-after millenials, can relate to and respect. Instead, watching these commercials is like buying a ticket to Paris and ending up in Epcot.

Bad ad campaigns have lasting impressions. The Colonel Sanders reboot is rapidly becoming the most ridiculed fast-food campaign since the "Where's Herb?" fiasco of the mid-1980's. There, Burger King spent $40 million, including a Super Bowl advert, to create "Herb," a bald, middle-aged geek who had never been to Burger King. You got discounts if you ordered your Whopper and informed the counter worker that you weren't Herb. (And fast-food workers nowadays think they're overworked and underpaid?) You could win prizes if you found Herb in a restaurant. Trouble was, no one looked for Herb because smart families tended to avoid middle-aged, creepy men who hung out in Burger Kings. The campaign lasted three months, and they're still teaching its lessons in college today.

Look, everyone makes mistakes, but most good leaders recognize that and learn from it. Sometimes big brands realize that their products are awful (New Coke) or shows like Saturday Night Live realize the talent sucks (Norm Macdonald). It is then incumbent on management to pull the plug quickly and focus resources elsewhere. In Lean Startup terms, you put out a minimum viable product, see customer reaction and decide where to go.

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KFC, however, has decided to take its bad hand and double down. The company has said its research suggests that one in five people hate the campaign. Amazingly, during an investor conference in May, Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed said that was just fine with him.

"That’s better than 100 percent being indifferent," Creed said, according to Food Business News. "And that really is what’s important. We had lost relevance in the U.S. Sixty percent of millennials had not eaten KFC."

Not only that, but Creed said he was "very excited that this work is really distinctive and disruptive. And I am actually quite happy that 20 percent 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.”

Well, yes, but being hated doesn't automatically make you relevant. It just makes you hated. Relevance equates to sales, but indifference and hate both breed people who would rather go eat at Chick-fil-A.

I suppose in some twisted ad-agency world being pleased with a campaign because it generates 20 percent negatives means you need to work harder to get that number up to, say, half. But the real world would say it's time to rethink the mission. And KFC needs help. The only reason it isn't the worst restaurant at Yum Brands is that the company is still keeping Pizza Hut on life support. Other competitors have credible chicken offerings. Fast casual is taking share from all traditional fast-food companies.

That means KFC has little room for error to continue down failing paths. The consequences are that, if it isn't honest about the true disdain much of the public has for this campaign, sales will fall, customers will go elsewhere, franchisees will fail and people will lose jobs. That's no laughing matter, even for people with a sense of humor so twisted they think Norm MacDonald or Darrell Hammond are funny and have millenial appeal.

Let Colonel Harland Sanders recquiescat in pace. It might be the easiest way for KFC to stop digging its own grave.

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