For Mature Brands – Like KFC and McDonald’s – Is Going ‘Back to the Future’ the Right Move?

Colonel Sanders

KFC has become the latest mature brand to unlock its archives to resuscitate old icons in an effort to revive declining sales. KFC has hired “Saturday Night Live” alum Darrell Hammond to play the legendary Colonel Sanders in new commercials that debuted in May.

hamburglar-hed-2015The return of the Colonel came just weeks after McDonald’s debut a new hipster Hamburglar, a character that hadn’t been seen in television commercials in over a decade.

But is it good business for mature brands to use old icons in new marketing campaigns?

Probably not, says Kelly O’Keefe, PadillaCRT Chief Branding Officer and professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, the #1 ranked graduate advertising program in the country.

“Truth is, nostalgia just reminds us that a brand is old. That’s exactly the wrong message,” O’Keefe said. “So what works for tired mature brands? Newness. Not saying new things. Doing new things.”

For example, Kelly said that if McDonald’s really wanted to evoke “newness,” the burger behemoth could nix the frozen patties in favor of fresher, leaner beef. It also could ditch the brightly colored furniture and create a warmer, more comfortable seating environment.

“Supposed McDonald’s leveraged its global footprint,” O’Keefe said. “And introduced an international menu of easy to buy and eat foods from around the globe?”

While the company hasn’t gone as far as O’Keefe suggests, in April, the world’s largest burger chain announced its Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich, made with a 100 percent white-meat chicken breast, crisp lettuce, a slice of tomato and a splash of vinaigrette on a toasted “artisan” roll.

Baby steps.

Back to the Hamburglar. Reactions to his arrival have been mixed, at best. And sales don’t seem to reflect that consumers are embracing the revamped hamburger thief or the new “artisan chicken sandwich.” Comparable sales at stores open at least 13 months declined 2.2 percent in the U.S. and 0.3 percent globally in May, according to BuzzFeed News.

As for KFC, the verdict’s still out on whether the resurrection of Colonel Sanders will do much for the chicken chain. The move already has one prominent critic.

Former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who bought the secret recipe in 1964 and opened 3,500 Kentucky Fried Chicken stores before selling the company in 1971, said the Colonel wouldn’t approve of how KFC is using an actor to mimic his likeness.

“I don’t think you make a gimmick out of somebody,” Brown said in a phone interview with USA Today. “I think they are making fun of the Colonel. It is such a fascinating story. I hate to see them tarnish it.”

KFC is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, which also owns the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell chains.

Brown’s comments may be particularly poignant is this era of authenticity in marketing.

McDonald’s and KFC aren’t the first brands to harken back to brighter days for inspiration. In 2007, ConAgra Foods rolled out a new Orville Redenbacher ad during the Golden Globe Awards featuring a digital recreation of the brand’s namesake.

At the time, Orville’s grandson Gary Redenbacher thought the ad would be right up Orville’s alley, as he had always been cutting-edge.

Unfortunately, critics didn’t share the same views and thought the digital recreation came across as more creepy than heartwarming.

It just goes to show you, that sometimes for brands – like in life – you can’t go home again.

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