Dear KFC, Colonel Sanders is not a DJ

Brand experience creators call out KFC for its activation at Ultra Music Festival in Miami.

Colonel Harland David Sanders had a multitude of jobs before inventing a secret recipe for fried chicken in 1952 that attracted a global fanbase. He worked on steam engines, in petrol stations and even allegedly as an insurance salesman.

But a career in electronic dance music? It didn't seem to be an aspiration for the colonel, but that didn't stop KFC from partnering Ultra Music Festival in Miami last weekend to deliver arguably the most surreal activation ever.

The sight of a DJ wearing a clumsy Colonel Sanders helmet on the main stage, stammering "Hello Kentucky, any of ya hungry for some beats?" while DJing in front of a screen showing images of the real colonel, red-and-white branding and the "Finger lickin' good" strapline was so startlingly awkward that many believed it was an April Fool's Day stunt. 

KFC's mascot and the tone-deaf set was called out by festivalgoers and EDM artists including Marshmello, but has the sponsorship set a new precedent for brands attempting to broadcast direct from the main stage? Campaign spoke to key brand experience creators to get their take on the colonel's DJ debut and the future of festival activations.

Kate Umfreville, client director, The Producers 

Picture the meeting: kids love KFC, kids love Colonel Sanders, kids love festivals. We need to connect with millennials and build brand equity, so let’s take KFC on the road and bring the brand to life. Perfect. Job done.   

At some point, the creative team around KFC decided to get on the hippy crack and those dots got joined up to become "let’s get the colonel to DJ a proper set, Deadmau5-stylee".

All too often, brands decide to be the publisher and curator of cultural content in festivals. They don’t have permission or authenticity to do it. 

Yes, create a vehicle for DJs to perform – stage, arena, hotel, motel, ferris wheel, boat, tank, you name it. It’s been done and it works. But be the canvas, be the facilitator and add value to the festivalgoer’s life.  

They make great chicken. Their product should have been at the heart of the experience (a Colonel Sanders head on a DJ and branded AV doesn’t count) and no-one is going to thank you for it, unless you took off the colonel's head to reveal Daft Punk. 

Bringing your brand mascot to life in a serious, cultural way is just so wrong on so many levels. Burger King get away with using their mascot with this audience as they use humour to laugh at both themselves and the competition in a playful way. 

I’m not sure whose idea this was; it doesn’t matter. What’s more important is why nobody pulled the ripcord, before Colonel Sanders was allowed to plummet to his death in a painful stage dive.   

Jonathan Emmins, founder, Amplify

How did it get to this? Is it an April Fool’s? Is this some postmodern artistic comment on society? We like to think there must be a couple of young creatives sniggering in the toilets somewhere going: "Oh my God, I didn’t think they would actually do it!"

DJ and producer Alex Metric nailed it when he tweeted: "Ultra selling ad space on the EDM main stage at one of the most commercial festivals feels like some horrendous logical conclusion to the direction that part of dance music has been heading."

Ultra is as mainstream as mainstream can be. Yet watch the video when it cuts to the crowd and they all look like they're watching the most awkward-ever episode of The Office. The organisers should know better. Whether you share their taste in music or not – and EDM isn't my vibe – it makes a mockery of their amazing stage set-up, their artists and, above all, their audience. 

KFC should know better. With so many exciting options and cultural routes, festivals often feel like a lazy and expensive option for brands trying to tick the youth box. At music festivals, the majority of the audience probably aren't in the "right state of mind" to take in your brand experience anyway. Even if the fit is right, the brand still needs to earn the right to play.

Done right, brands have the chance to add to and elevate an experience, ideally making something a reality that wouldn't have been possible without their support; a win-win. Done badly, brands are parasitical, forcing their way in-between the audience and their passions. And it doesn't have to be boring and po-faced either. Big up to Nando's who over time have culturally earned the right to play with this audience, always adding value, never detracting and staying true to their values with personality that always raises a cheeky grin. Who wouldn't pick Nando's tongue-in-cheek festival-touring "Cock o'van" over a slightly demonic colonel shouting at you?

Robin Shaw, creative director, Warm Street

EDM is one of the most flavourless scenes where commercial gain and brand awareness is more important than integrity. I can’t argue with KFC targeting Ultra; it feels as good a fit as any. However, their bid to reach out to a young audience is something of an embarrassment. I expect more unicorn bracelets were sold than buckets of chicken while the colonel laid down five minutes – yes, five whole painful minutes – of terrible ad agency-curated EDM and visuals.

There are reports that at one point the colonel’s voiceover says: "Come on youth culture" – now I love fried chicken, but this killed KFC for me. It screams of an idea created by ageing, ivory tower desk warriors who haven’t spent the time, or money, getting to know their audience.

It’s a common mistake brands and agencies make and I hope this shitshow shines a light on the negative results of negating this part of the process. I doubt the agency asked: "What do Ultra and their attendees need to support their scene? How could we help enhance their experience or help to support the next generation of EDM lovers, DJs and creatives?"

The two biggest shocks to me are how culturally unaware the marketing industry is of the nuances within each scene and how agencies don’t consider how to create a real value exchange between the client, festival and consumer.

As a rule, we don’t respond to a festival brief until we’ve spoken to the owners and key players in the scene. but we’re happy to change tack if our hypothesis or ideas don’t fly.

In the future, I hope there will be a rise in thoughtful activations driven by insights and using the creatives and cultural minds who drive the music industry to shape brand strategies and push brands to reach their consumers in the most genuine way.

Chris Marking, vice-president, sponsorship strategy – global partnerships, AEG 

For all our sponsorship at AEG, be that of events, venues or sports, our aim is to deliver sponsorships that are credible and relevant to all our fans. This principle is probably most relevant across our festivals, due to the nature of the audiences and artists, both of which we want to make our fans.  

We work with our sponsors through a mix of data-based insights, such as the audience profile, primary research and transactional behaviour, and combine this with creativity to make sure any activations enhance the customer experience. When you get this right, the results are great for both the partner and event visitor. At Barclaycard presents British Summer Time in Hyde Park, we saw a 21-point jump in net promoter scores when engaging with three or more partner experiences.

In the case of KFC, I would question whether they have considered the impact this would have on all fans of the event, in particular the artist. Whilst I am sure some consumers saw this as a bit of fun between sets, it has been seen to cheapen the hard work some acts put in to becoming a DJ. Getting the brand on to the main stage is often one of the biggest challenges for partners and festivals, so we can applaud the intent, but the reaction shows you why this needs to be carefully considered.

Louise Gibbs-Inkpen, senior director, Wasserman

DJ Colonel Sanders’ inaugural appearance at Ultra Music Festival demonstrates the delicate tightrope brand partnerships have to walk. One wrong step and KFC can quickly undo the success of last year’s multiple awards win.

KFC’s #ChickenCrisis success from last year can be attributed in part to bravely appealing to the "human" in us all. It encouraged consumers to see beyond the money-making marketing to empathise with the brand and come out the other side as more authentic and relevant – with a sprinkling of good humour for added merit.  

The badge and brand partnerships of old are now in the dust and we’re deep into a brave new world of brand partnerships. Instead, the new golden formula of success for brand partnerships is authenticity + relevance + humour = success.    

Unfortunately, the Ultra partnership saw KFC deviate from their winning combination and festivalgoers quickly saw through the act. Despite promoting some burgers with an 80s-inspired campaign a few years ago, KFC haven’t really won the right to play in music, meaning they lacked authenticity and relevance. They pushed the humour too far, consequently undermining the platform they were trying to leverage for credibility.

It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Ultra either, but it does teach an important lesson for cultural platforms. Ultra opened up its heralded place as one of the US’s most popular EDM festivals, and in doing so removed the choice from festivalgoers and subjected them to overt commercialisation. A big no-go for savvy consumers and festivalgoers.

It remains to be seen if KFC can work their magic once more to spin this negative into positive. Perhaps they can start with the impressive, albeit unfavourable, digital reach that DJ Colonel Sanders has already generated.

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