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KFC taps 'Mad Men' star to be its newest Colonel as sales soar

Business Insider Australia logo Business Insider Australia 13/10/2016 Kate Taylor

As KFC's Colonel Sanders campaigns continue to boost sales, the chain is introducing a new Colonel to promote the return of Nashville Hot Chicken.

On Monday KFC debuted a new ad starring Vincent Kartheiser as the "heartthrob" Nashville Hot Colonel. At 37, Kartheiser, who is best known for his role as Pete on AMC's Mad Men, is younger than past Colonels played by comedians including Darrell Hammond, Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton, and, most recently, Rob Riggle.

Kartheiser's Colonel will be used to promote the return of Nashville Hot Chicken to KFC's menu, as well as the launch of new Nashville Hot Chicken Little sandwiches.

© Provided by Business Insider Inc KFC first debuted the regional chicken dish in January, as a limited time offering. Originally some customers, especially Nashville natives, were sceptical. However, KFC says that the launch was one of the most successful in the chain's history -- and that Nashville, Tennessee was the top-selling city.

Kartheiser's Nashville Hot Colonel is the second Colonel Sanders to market a specific menu item. Over the summer, George Hamilton represented just one product, Extra Crispy Chicken, in a campaign that Yum says drove much of KFC's sales growth in the third quarter.

The founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Harland Sanders. © Getty Images The founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Harland Sanders. In the one-and-a-half years since Colonel Sanders' return to KFC marketing, the Colonel-centric campaigns have helped elevate the chain to 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."

© Provided by Business Insider Inc 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.

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

© Provided by Business Insider Inc 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.

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.

© Provided by Business Insider Inc 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.

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