There really was a Colonel Sanders

More than half of 18- to 25-year-olds don't know he was real, so KFC's parent company is looking to change that.

By InvestorPlace Sep 9, 2010 10:31AM

Pop quiz: Which of these fast-food icons was an actual human being?

a) Mayor McCheese

b) The King

c) Colonel Sanders

d) None of the above

If you answered C, congratulations. You are more knowledgeable than most young Americans.

A new survey shows many had no idea Harlan Sanders was a real person who started the KFC chain -- known then as Kentucky Fried Chicken. And since so many folks apparently don't know that, KFC parent Yum Brands (YUM) is launching a new campaign coinciding with the Colonel's 120th birthday to educate the public on his relationship to the fried-chicken franchise's roots.

The inciting incident was a new survey of young American adults (ages 18 to 25, the prime fast-food demographic) that found that more than 60% could not identify Colonel Harlan Sanders and that 52% of them considered his image part of the restaurant's fake branding.  (Sanders wasn't a military officer; "colonel" is an honorary title in Kentucky.)


But it's strange that KFC would take the snub so personally. After all, it has cut "Kentucky" out of its name in favor of the current three-letter moniker. And it has been "unthinking" its way out of the fried-chicken bucket that it has been in for so long.

The marketing moves throughout the 1990s have led to marketing confusion with consumers -- is it healthful chicken offerings or fried-finger-lickin' good? -- and rankled chain owners.


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The Association of Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchisees cites this and the health-conscious "unthink KFC" marketing campaign as the reasons for poor revenues and a decrease in customers. U.S. sales saw a decline of 7% at KFC in the second quarter.


So maybe this is a way for KFC to take back its old brand -- and some of the success.

The restaurant isn't the only one struggling to keep a strong brand image. PepsiCo (PEP) still feels the burn from its 2009 (but short-lived) redesign of Tropicana orange juice packaging. In only two months -- with a 20% drop in sales -- the company reverted to the original logo and branding. As well, Pepsi lost sales with another flagship product redesign: Gatorade or G, as it is currently called. Volume sales of the sports drink fell 13.7% in the first quarter after the name change.

KFC is now opting to show its history to a public that seems largely indifferent to the man who made fried chicken a national obsession, not just a Southern one. But reintroducing the Colonel may be a little too late.

At age 65, with only a sixth-grade education and a $105 Social Security check, Sanders turned a Southern restaurant into a multimillion-dollar global chicken empire. By 1976, he was ranked as the world's second-most-recognizable celebrity after boxer Muhammad Ali. Sanders died at age 90.

Though his legacy didn't die with him, KFC is now "unthinking" the decision to give it an early funeral. But we'll see if that pays off for the restaurant.

As of this writing, Burke Speaker did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.

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