To put it mildly, 2019 has been a tough year for chief marketing officers. Some executives have left amid larger corporate turmoil (Kraft Heinz, Uber), some after launching brand refreshes (Dunkin', Reebok) and some saw their duties split between two or more people (McDonald's, Taco Bell). And the picture is not getting better, with Forrester forecasting that CMOs will face a "desperate fight for survival" in 2020.
One executive who has stood tall during this turmoil is KFC U.S. CMO Andrea Zahumensky, who took the top job in December 2017 after years at Procter & Gamble. Yet this award is not just for winning a war of attrition: Zahumensky and her team's multitude of off-the-wall campaigns are generating both headlines and business for KFC parent company Yum Brands, as the fried chicken chain is on its way to a sixth straight year of same-store sales growth.
In some ways, Zahumensky exemplifies the mindset today's CMOs need to have: One that assumes responsibility for revenue, customer experience and brand image.
"Ultimately, my job as CMO is to deliver what we call 'brand over time and sales overnight,'" Zahumensky told Marketing Dive. "All of my work that I'm doing ultimately needs to deliver that. That goes everywhere from innovation that brings in new customers as well as pleases our core customers, all the way to brand and culture."
Embrace edgy, no matter the platform
Since 2015, KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders has been a central character in the brand's advertising, played by a variety of actors and other ambassadors in increasingly outlandish ways. KFC this year intrigued and engaged consumers by bringing the Colonel further into niche spaces of the digital world — often with racy results.
For Valentine's Day, KFC took to Reddit to ask graphic designers, writers and artists to create art around a limited-edition faux bearskin rug that resembles the brand's mascot — practically challenging the offensive corners of the message board platform to put the Colonel in a brand-unsafe position. Then, KFC outdid itself: For Mother's Day, the brand released a "Chickendales" video that starred a Colonel Sanders-inspired Chippendales dancer ripping off his shirt to promote a special Mother's Day dessert biscuit.
The brand also turned over its Instagram account to a sauve, hipster version of the mascot via a "Virtual Influencer Colonel," who showcased Dr. Pepper, TurboTax and Old Spice on Instagram. Similarly, the Colonel starred in an anime-style dating game.
For Zahumensky and her team, these campaigns came from embracing things that might make them uncomfortable, using the actual Colonel Sanders as a "northstar," and then getting buy-in from franchisees.
Apart from the buzz that these boundary pushing campaigns caused, each demonstrated KFC embracing a platform, whether YouTube, Instagram, Reddit or Steam, that is favored by younger consumers, and doing it in a way that could authentically connect with ad-fatigued consumers. "Culture" is a hot topic for marketers these days as a response to blindness toward traditional ads. Zahumensky and her team are leading the way in making embedding brands in culture an effective strategy.
"You can ... find things that are happening in culture and slap your logo on it, or try to mirror that, [but] the standard that we really hold ourselves to is we want to insert ourselves and authentically be a part of what's happening in culture," Zahumensky said.
Continue the product push, team with other brands
KFC has pushed quirky merchandise for years, and that didn't stop in 2019. While none of the tongue-in-cheek, "ground-breaking ideas" of its crowdfunding efforts got off the ground, KFC continued to see success with its other product pushes. A limited-edition Colonel Sanders Funko Pop figure sold out in 11 minutes, and chicken-scented "seasoned tickets" were gone on StubHub within two hours of going live.
For these efforts — along with the virtual influencer campaign — other brands are approaching KFC to be a part of the lifestyle brand that the company has worked to create with Zahumensky at the marketing helm.
"We are seeing our brand consideration increase substantially, which is one of the ways we measure relevance," Zahumensky said. "We're able to really show how we're getting more customers into our brand and making KFC more relevant to this next generation of customers."