KFC customers hate the Colonel, and the CEO says that's led to the brand's incredible 'breakthrough'

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One-and-a-half years after Colonel Sanders' return to KFC marketing, the chain is in 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."

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.

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

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. Since Darrell Hammond brought KFC's founder back from the dead, comedians including Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton, and, most recently, Rob Riggle have taken on the role in advertising.

Hamilton's role as the "Extra-Crispy Colonel" demonstrated just how important the Colonel's role can be. Hamilton's Colonel represented just one product, Extra Crispy Chicken, in a campaign that Yum says drove much of KFC's sales growth in the third quarter.

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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.

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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KFC restaurants around the world
This picture taken on March 8, 2015 shows people walk past a KFC fast food restaurant in Lhasa, southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region. US fast food giant KFC has opened its first restaurant in Tibet, the venue's property manager said on March 9, more than a decade after the chain's first attempt to establish a foothold ended in controversy. / AFP / STR / China OUT / CHINA OUT (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TIANJIN, CHINA - 2016/02/09: Portrait of Colonel Sanders hung on the exterior of a KFC restaurant. On the early of February, KFC China triumphs in Lawsuit Over Mutant Chicken Rumors, received a combined fine of $91,191 from three companies who spread the false allegations that KFC had served genetically modified chickens with 'six wings and eight legs.'. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Picture taken on January 25, 2016, in Laval, northwestern France, shows a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurant. / AFP / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER (Photo credit should read JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)
KUNMING, YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA - 2015/12/14: A KFC restaurant in Changshui Airport. Yum,the parent company of KFC, has announced in October of 2015 to create a separate publicly traded China-focused company. The China division is expected to post a 10% operating profit in 2016. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ACCRA, GHANA - NOVEMBER 13: People walk past a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant on Oxford Street in the affluent Osu neighborhood, on November 13, 2015 in Accra, Ghana. The street is filled with shops, businesses and restaurants and is always bustling. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
A woman walks past the fried chicken shop 'KFC Halal', using the brand name of US fast food giant KFC, after it was closed by Iranian police, on November 3, 2015, in the capital Tehran. 'Police closed the 'KFC' restaurant as it didn't have authorisation and had been operating under a false license,' reported the news site of Iran's Young Journalist Club, which is affiliated with state television. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
An employee handles a tray of food inside a KFC restaurant, operated by Yum! Brands Inc. KFC and Yoma Strategic Holdings, in Yangon, Myanmar, on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015. Yum has had success over the past two decades by taking its KFC and Pizza Hut chains to more than 125 countries. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A sign indicates the way to the new 24-hour KFC fast food restaurant, operated by Yum! Brands Inc., in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, May 25, 2015. Yum! rose the most in more than a year after the hedge fund firm disclosed the 'significant stake' in the restaurant operator, saying the growth of the middle class in China will benefit the company. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Yum! Brands Inc. KFC restaurant stands in Shelbyville, Kentucky, U.S., on Saturday, April 18, 2015. Yum! Brands Inc. is scheduled to release earnings figures on April 21. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A car sits parked at the drive-thru of a Yum! Brands Inc. KFC restaurant in Peoria, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Yum! Brands Inc. is scheduled to report fourth-quarter 2014 earnings on Feb. 5. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MUMBAI, MAHARASHTRA, INDIA - 2013/11/02: The red facade of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC, restaurant with a motor rikshaw parking in front. (Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks past a KFC restaurant in Kolkata, India, on Monday, March 14, 2011. India faces pressure to step up its battle against price gains even after the steepest interest-rate increases among Asia's major economies, as oil costs rise and consumer demand strengthens. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A vehicle leaves the drive-thru area of a combined KFC and Taco Bell restaurant, both units of Yum! Brands Inc., in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, July 13, 2010. Yum! Brands Inc. reported a second-quarter adjusted profit of 58 cents a share. Photographer: Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CHINA - MAY 02: KFC signs are seen on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China, on Wednesday, March 2, 2007. Yum! Brands Inc., the owner of the Pizza Hut and KFC restaurant chains, posted a 14 percent first-quarter profit gain that exceeded analysts' estimates on increased sales in China, its fastest growing region. (Photo by Ariana Lindquist/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 30: A KFC restaurant is shown October 30, 2006 in San Francisco, California. In New York today, KFC announced that it will phase out use of artificial trans fats at all its American restaurants to healthier linolenic soybean oil by April 2007. New York is weighing a ban on the artery-clogging oils in all city restaurants. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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