KFC marketing chief: Don't flush dollars down the drain with vanilla campaigns

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Jennelle Tilling, KFC's global chief marketing and innovation officer, shares a few tips from her 15 years in the industry.

It’s good to take big risks and fail

At Yum!, we often talk about the kind of people we want to bring into the company: individuals who are smart, with heart and courage.

I think those first two traits are easier to come by. We tend to work with a lot of intelligent people who care deeply about others. Courage—i.e., risk-taking—is more elusive.

I remember a time when I had to pull a campaign that cost serious cash to produce after the first three weeks with two more ads yet to run. Not an easy discussion to have with the board and franchisees, but it was the right call.

Don't let anyone ever tell you not to take a risk you felt in your gut is the right move. And if, in fact, you fail, it's OK to acknowledge that failure.

Dust yourself off, gather your learnings ... and risk again. That is what courage is all about.

Authenticity is everything

It is perhaps a bit trite at this point to say: "Be yourself." Every teacher, mentor, friend or parent has probably given us that piece of wisdom at some point in our lives. And it's absolutely true. However, I offer that advice with a great sense of practicality behind it: doing the opposite is simply too exhausting.

We want to focus on being amazing marketers. If you're worried about pretending to be someone you're not for the purposes of fitting into a particular corporate culture—you're doing yourself, your role and the company a great disservice.

Put together a motley crew

After 25 years in marketing, I think I have a pretty good idea of my strengths and weaknesses. And while it sounds perfectly logical to hire people who balance out our weaknesses, most people end up hiring candidates who think the same way.

To some extent, that makes sense—there's a great safety in that mindset. But we must fight that urge. You are only as good as the team you're on, so you better make sure that team has balance—diversity of thought, experience and style. Then, and only then, can you be sure you have the right team in place.

In other words, hire people who are better than you—you can never go wrong.

You can't market to indifference

I love vanilla. It makes for great ice cream and cupcakes. It is, however, anathema to a successful marketing strategy.

A campaign that is vanilla—one that does not provoke and polarize—is tantamount to flushing your hardfought marketing dollars down the drain. You mustn't be afraid to ruffle feathers and create true conversation around your brand—good or bad.

KFC's reintroduction of the Colonel is a perfect example of this. When KFC US brought back the Colonel in 2015, many customers were skeptical about the move. According to Yum! chief executive Greg Creed: "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."

But the risky move paid off. It's critical to have a point of view, and with so many brands competing for attention—and our wallets—the days of playing it safe are over.

Figure out what you want to be when you grow up

We get asked this question non-stop when we're kids and undoubtedly our answers are different every few months. But something interesting happens as we get older—we stop posing that very same question to ourselves.

Don't ever stop asking yourself that because getting to the answer is crucial to charting your career path. I knew I wanted to be a chief marketing officer very early on—and then every move I made was in support of that ultimate goal.

I was open to the many routes and opportunities to get me there, so when the time came to take a risky or less-obvious role—in the UK or in another market—I knew it could help propel me to CMO more quickly.

What's your legacy?

This is a pretty lofty question to ask, especially if you're just starting out on your career path. However, it is never too early to think about the contribution you can make in any given role.

When I take on a new position, I always think about how I can do things differently and what kind of stamp I can put on the brand, the business and, most importantly, the team.

When you leave that company, will others turn around and say you transformed your piece of the business? If they—and, as importantly, you—can't say that, you still have work to do.

—Jennelle Tilling is global chief marketing and innovation officer at KFC. She has worked for other Yum! brands including Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

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