KFC Breathes New Life Into Colonel Sanders -- and Vice Versa

A pedestrian walks past a Yum Brands Inc. KFC restaurant in
Nelson Ching/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Colonel Harland Sanders is back at KFC, hoping to bring back some of the brand's initial "finger lickin' good" appeal. The chain's new marketing strategy features musical commercials, funny videos and even a few online games, and they all star KFC's iconic founder.

If you haven't seen Sanders around until recently, it's probably because he passed away 35 years ago. He was the focal point of the chain's ads when he was alive, joining the ranks of Dave Thomas at Wendy's (WEN) and Carvel's Tom Carvel as highly visible founder-spokesmen.

KFC parent Yum Brands (YUM) naturally held back after Sanders passed away. It did bring Sanders back as an animated figure for several spots starting in the late 1990s, but the retro charm just wasn't there. Now it seems as if bringing back an actor to portray Sanders -- tapping "Saturday Night Live" alum Darrell Hammond, who is best known for his impressions of Bill Clinton and Sean Connery, to play the colorful founder -- is KFC's new shot at winning back its relevance with consumers.

The Rise and Stall of KFC

KFC continues to be a big driver for Yum Brands, particularly in China, where it was a big winner until a recent avian flu scare. However, closer to home, KFC was overtaken by Chick-fil-A as the country's largest chicken chain in 2012, and it's been struggling to get back on top.

There are also plenty of hungry and now well-financed upstarts gunning for KFC in its fried-chicken stronghold. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (PLKI) and the recently gone-public Bojangles' (BOJA) now have easier access to expansion financing as a stand-alone public companies. Even Shake Shack (SHAK) looms as a potential challenger after recently taking out the "Chicken Shack" trademark.

KFC can't afford to be seen as just as bland as its mashed potatoes, so in comes Hammond with a self-effacing turn as Sanders in a new commercial singing the praises of the chain's signature bucket of fried chicken. The marketing doesn't end there. KFC has launched ColonelSanders.com with a handful of online games depicting everything from a gunfight at his original gas station to his dropping out of school in the sixth grade. Players of the Colonel Quest games who are successful can print out a $5 coupon that's good through early June.

Add it all up and KFC is pulling on lots of levers at the moment, hoping that either the Hammond commercial, the five Colonel Quest games, or even a depiction of the infamous gunfight tweak nostalgic feelings in millennials who were born after Sanders passed away.

Giving all elements of the new campaign a life on social media is the right approach. KFC aims to reach consumers where the traditional KFC marketing messages aren't resonating. Whether or not it succeeds in an era where the number of options for fried chicken continues to grow remains to be seen, but if KFC can bring Sanders back from the dead, it may be able to do the same thing to its tired brand.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.