July 5, 2006
Sam Bond on Colonel Sanders

Yesterday in Louisville's The Courier-Journal, I was quoted on the transformation of the image of Col. Sanders for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The fast food chain is making moves to create a more youthful Colonel, including adding some color to his image which adorns all of their cups, advertisements, etc. The changing of the Col. Sanders picture was the focus of this article, but the company has also been utilizing a cartoon version of the colonel in its television advertisements as well. It's not yet clear if the old image of the Colonel will be replaced with the new one, but the paperwork has been filed.

I was quoted in The Courier-Journal as saying that the image of the colonel has evolved because a younger generation only knows the icon and not the actual human being. In old ads, an actual photo of the Colonel or actual footage of the Colonel might have been used, but consumers in their 20s or younger would not remember the actual Col. Sanders but only his image for the KFC brand. According to the story, by David Goetz, the move is "part of a strategy to reconnect with the baby boomers, who still have fond memories of the original Col. Sanders, while appealing to younger fast-food users who may not know who the old dude is but like his picture." Indeed, part of the interest in this new youthful image and the cartoon icon in the television commercials may be to redefine KFC as a multi-generational brand instead of relying on nostalgic images for older consumers. Putting more emphasis on Col. Sanders instead of Harland Sanders still respects his legacy while distancing the company from the man.

For those who don't know the backstory (as a Kentuckian, it's my duty to know about one of our favorite culinary sons), Col. Sanders owned a small restaurant that became famous for its fried chicken, which he then successfully franchised throughout the region before eventually being bought out by future Kentucky governor John Y. Brown Jr. Now owned by Yum! Foods, KFC is an internationally known franchise, with Col. Sanders retained as its creator.

The Col. Sanders icon has changed through the years as the company distances itself from Harlan Sanders but continues to celebrate his legacy through the Col. Sanders character (Sanders was actually a Kentucky Colonel, an honorary title here in The Bluegrass State).

When Sanders died, KFC no longer had the actual Sanders as spokesperson but instead a representation of him and, now, in their television commercials, a cartoon version. Through this evolution, you can trace Sanders' development from a human spokesperson, Harland Sanders, to a mythic figure, Col. Sanders. The new cartoon version of Sanders still references the immense history of the KFC brand through Sanders the character while creating a new version of the Colonel to further distance itself from the person.

While Col. Sanders' image is still used on every aspect of KFC merchandising, Wendy's has distanced itself from using founder Dave Thomas in commercials. Why? Maybe it's becuase, in order for KFC to remain Kentucky Fried Chicken, it needs to retain the authenticity of the creator of the food, who was actually from The Bluegrass State and whose food became popular through word-of-mouth. In other words, can it really be "Kentucky" Fried Chicken if the company moves from emphasizing its Kentucky roots?

Even though KFC doesn't include the creator's name in its title, like popcorn brand Orville Redenbacher, much of the company's legacy and brand still depends on Col. Sanders, if not Harland himself. While the company may be distancing itself from the actual creator as time goes by, they are as dependant as ever on the Colonel.

Last year, fellow C3 analyst Ilya Vedrashko blogged about this issue on the site that was a precursor to this blog, citing the company's interest in giving the Colonel a facelift to attract younger audiences.

Oh, and contrary to the CJ's story, my name is not Bond...Sam Bond. It's still Sam Ford, although I guess I could start branding myself as the 007 of convergence culture.



Wikipedia has the reasons why the name was officially changed to KFC in the first place: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kentucky_Fried_Chicken). I don't think the persistence of the Colonel is strategic - just lack of creativity. A shame, given that FC&B broke ground with one of the first "anti-DVR" ads. CP+B's work with The King has set the bar so high that KFC should drop the Colonel and go straight for the consumers, ala JetBlue and Sheraton. And having grown up in Kentucky myself, I assure you that there would be enough interesting characters to uncover between Paducah and Ashland.

On July 5, 2006 at 12:07 PM, Sam Ford said:


As Ilya's entry from a while back that I linked to in the story indicates, the company is now starting its shift BACK to Kentucky Fried Chicken from KFC. Part of that is because the healthy foods market has been emphasized by some people, while groups like Hardee's have found a niche simply in being honest about what they do--providing big burgers.

I think you raise a good point about both the anti-DVR ads and The King, but I don't know if I agree with you about a loss of value in the Colonel image overall or not. That doesn't mean that the company shouldn't be more creative, but I don't know if being more creative necessitates droping the Col. Sanders image.

As for the characters in Kentucky, though, I know exactly what you mean, Peter. Maybe they should do grassroots commercials about what people in Kentucky think about KFC chicken. I know a few people in Beaver Dam, Ky. (where I'm from and where I'm working this summer) who could probably say a thing or two about KFC.

Of course, they had enough problems about what Harland himself said about the quality of their chicken. He was quoted several times speaking out against their crispy chicken recipe and once called their gravy "sludge" and "wallpaper paste," according to the Wikipedia entry.

He was sued for libel, but the lawsuit was unsuccessful. No wonder they want to get away from the actual Harland Sanders, who was often not a proponent of KFC, and are moving toward this new cartoonish version, with the Randy Quaid voiceovers. This is Col. Sanders, not Harland.

But I still think the Colonel is enough of a U.S. business myth that he remains important for the authenticity of the brand.


The public radio program This American Life had a great piece back in 1999 about the evolution of the Colonel Sanders character. At that time they were rolling out the cartoon version of Colonel Sanders, and having him say stuff like "The Colonel get funky." Check out Mark Schone's radio piece on the attempt to turn Colonel Sanders from a white man into a black man. Hilarious. Since the This American Life website uses frames, here's a direct link to the page with the program in question's audio:

On July 8, 2006 at 2:55 PM, Sam Ford said:

Thanks for your post, Chris, and the link to the This American Life piece. Goes to show you that this has been something that KFC has been dealing with and thinking about for some time.