Andrea Zahumensky had big shoes to fill when she stepped in as KFC's U.S. CMO in December. Since 2015, the Yum Brands restaurant chain has seen a resurgence in consumer interest — and sales — thanks to the return of founder Colonel Harland Sanders as a brand character in its advertising. But KFC also operates in a tightly competitive quick-service space that's feeling strain as consumers crave fresher foods and convenience through more mobile and digital innovation.
KFC has a few key points of differentiation. Sanders, as portrayed by a rotating cast of actors, celebrities and even WWE stars, has helped the brand build a particularly off-beat sense of humor, with stunts like a 96-page romance novella published last year for Mother's Day. For the holiday this year, which consistently ranks as one of the company's top-five, best selling days of the year, KFC launched an activation where followers could tag their moms in a Mother's Day comment section on KFC's social pages to receive a customized poem written by the colonel himself.
That blend of personalization and non-disruptive marketing is just one of the ways KFC works to authentically connect with consumers, according to Zahumensky. An industry veteran with 20 years of experience at Procter & Gamble before signing on with the fried chicken maker, Zahumensky spoke with Marketing Dive about an eventful first few months on the job, marketing innovations with VR and on new platforms like Amazon's Twitch, as well as what's in store for the rest of year.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
MARKETING DIVE: Now that it's been roughly six months since you started, how has everything been shaping up at KFC? What initiatives have you been tackling?
ANDREA ZAHUMENSKY: It's been a whirlwind of a few months, but very exciting. I'm really focused on making KFC a brand that customers trust and champion. We're going to do that through our breakthrough advertising campaigns, launching really craveable innovations and making sure that our brand is accessible in a way that customers today want it to be.
On the advertising campaign front, right away I got to work on my first colonel. We had Colonel Reba McEntire in January to launch our Smoky Mountain BBQ flavor. We actually picked her my first week on the job, and she's taken America by storm as a larger-than-life person who embodies the spirit of Colonel Sanders so well.
More recently, it's been very fun to launch a big new innovation platform for us, which is our Crispy Colonel sandwich. We've done that by bringing back a colonel for the first time. We brought back George Hamilton as our Extra Crispy Colonel.
You mentioned the idea of building trust. Brands rebuilding trust with consumers has been a big theme in the marketing industry lately. How do you think about doing that in an age where people are potentially more cynical to advertising?
ZAHUMENSKY: It's a couple of things. Number one, this campaign that we have now has allowed us to [communicate trust]. We have this true person, Colonel Sanders, who invented Kentucky Fried Chicken. He's not made up. When it started in 2015, our campaign really went back to embodying who he was. He's this over-the-top, irreverent chicken salesman, and there's a lot of fun in that. He didn't take himself so seriously; we don't take ourselves so seriously. We're able to have a lot of humor, which makes us very relatable.
One of the other important things we do is really work hard to connect authentically with consumers. When we get out on digital and social platforms, we're not just looking at them as a place to put our ads. We're looking at it as a place to add value to the experiences that our customers are already having, which is, a lot of time, on their phone, where it's very different and they don't want to be disrupted by ads. We work on those platforms to create our own culture versus just showing up in their feed or hijacking the latest change on a given platform.
An example of this was Mother's Day last year. We created this romance novella featuring the Colonel. We could've just done it as a stunt and created a fake thing, but we hired an authentic author who wrote the book. People read the book and then the content online were reviews and our fans talking about how they wanted a different ending to happen. It allowed us to have this conversation and have fun versus just being a brand in the feed.
It's been interesting to see the way KFC tackles event marketing for Mother's Day but also holidays like Halloween. How do you take a broader look at these moments to market around them?
ZAHUMENSKY: I'll take our partnership with the WWE as an example. It used to be that, in between matches, a commercial would come up on the big screen and the fans are booing because they just want to get back to the matches. KFC came in and really changed all that. We started to create a wrestling Colonel and got involved in that culture in an authentic way. We've grown that partnership and those experiences year-over-year to the point now where you have fans at these matches actually chanting for our colonel.
This year, in the lead-up to the Royal Rumble, we created a KFC Colonel Royal Rumble to see who was going to be the next colonel wrestler. Colonel Ric Flair won. Then we used that at the actual Royal Rumble as a way to connect with fans.
I know the colonel was also a playable character in a recent iteration of the WWE video game.
ZAHUMENSKY: That's exactly right. We [also] recently had an integration with the video game PUBG [PlayerUnkown's Battlegrounds] on Twitch. For the winner at the end of PUBG, the text goes across the screen reading: "winner, winner, chicken dinner." That's part of the game. We had a weekend where we were integrated into that. All the Twitch users communicate with emojis, so we had a KFC bucket that you could congratulate the winner with. It was a very fun integration and very different than slapping our logo on something.
What's the goal with a platform like Amazon's Twitch?
ZAHUMENSKY: In this goal of making KFC a brand that customers trust and champion, it really is about making KFC relevant and distinct. We create our own culture versus following what the rest of the pack is doing.
We've really prided ourselves on being out ahead of these trends. We're out looking for trends, and it's not always for the thing that has 80% of people looking at it. We're going to look at things that people are really into like the WWE or e-sports and then connect with them where they are and not try to disrupt what they're doing. We also launched a virtual reality —
ZAHUMENSKY: Yeah, KFC "The Hard Way." It started out as an employee training program and then it evolved into a game. It's a virtual reality escape room where Colonel Sanders gives hints and clues to make sure you're making fried chicken the hard way. It became such an authentic experience that Oculus reached out to us for it to be the featured experience in their store over the holidays, which was a totally earned integration. We did a true, developed experience.
Twitch, VR — all of these are newer marketing channels. Could you also talk a little bit about the e-commerce store KFC launched last year and how you're thinking about e-commerce as a channel in 2018?
ZAHUMENSKY: E-commerce has a really important role for us, definitely on the marketing side. We found a way in 2017 to deliver merchandise that people actually wanted to wear. We were selling out of our "finger-lickin' good" necklaces because it wasn't commercialized; it was on-trend. We've got some things in the works in 2018 that will evolve how we're able to do that same thing — connect with consumers with merchandise that isn't overly commercialized and that's unexpected.
The other thing that's really important for e-commerce is making our brand easy and accessible. Consumers today want to be able to get their food where they are or, at a minimum, order their food where they are. Our parent company Yum just announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with GrubHub, where we've actually invested in GrubHub. This will be another really important component where eventually you'll be able to be able to access KFC where you are. As we think about e-commerce, we want to take it all the way.
Is the GrubHub partnership the biggest piece of any sort mobile ordering strategy KFC is developing?
ZAHUMENSKY: Yes, GrubHub will be at the center of that for us.
Mobile ordering and in-store digital transformation are two trends in the QSR space that have been ramping up. Is there anything else KFC is tackling on that front?
ZAHUMENSKY: This is all about evolving the brand to connect with consumers the way they want to connect. Mobile ordering will be very important for that. Delivery will be very, critically important to that. We are testing things like kiosks, digital menu boards [and] learning about how customers want to experience that for KFC.
Anything else coming down the pike or that you'd like to add?
ZAHUMENSKY: We'll have very exciting things to come. I really believe the Crispy Colonel is differentiated from any other sandwich you can get on the market. It's hand-breaded, unlike what you can get from the burger boys. We have a new process so it's served piping hot every single time.
We're going to be bringing some new tricks over the next several months behind this big launch of the Crispy Colonel sandwich. We've got a new, unexpected flavor coming later in the summer. We've got some other George Hamilton tricks up our sleeves coming in the next several months.