KFC's Colonel makes way for nostalgic storylines in Canada

New CMO pushes ads to feature values over value in sharp pivot for brand

Here in the US, KFC is on its third Colonel in a year. Comedian Jim Gaffigan plays the goateed silver fox, screaming the brand’s traditional tagline — "It’s finger lickin’ good!" — to close out TV spots. But in Canada, KFC ads are taking a new approach, with a focus on themes like community, immigration and overcoming adversity.

It’s also a different direction for Grip Limited, the Toronto full-service agency that’s handled KFC Canada’s creative for the past seven years. "We’ve had a very traditional QSR media strategy for that time," said Creative Partner Dave Hamilton, using the shorthand for quick-service restaurants. "We’re taking a stab at telling some higher order brand film type stuff that’s really just more about connecting the brand to some relevant Canadian values."

In a 2-minute online spot that debuted last month, an immigrant father and son take their first wobbly steps on ice skates. Then the father watches with trepidation as his child tries out for a youth hockey team. After some initial tension, new friendships are cemented over a bucket of fried chicken. "We’ve told a story about a new immigrant family embracing hockey. The common ground comes from just a shared enjoyment of the food at the end," Hamilton said.

The agency enlisted director Jörn Haagen, who cast an actual father and son — immigrants from India — who learned to skate during the shoot. "Actors won't necessarily give you a 'better' commercial just because they've been professionally trained," Haagen said. "It's amazing what 'normal' people can do. And to be a good director, being a motivator, an enabler is often more important than being a 'genius' shot maker."

TV spots running 15 and 30 seconds feature the same group of kids, this time in uniform rather than practice gear. The newcomer, formerly the focus of the longer spot, blends in with the rest of his team.

Another long spots features a real match between two girls AA Peewee (under 13) hockey teams. The losing team gets a surprise pep talk about the benefits of losing from four-time Olympic gold medal hockey player and forward for the Montreal Stars, Caroline Ouellette.

It’s a far cry from Wieden+Kennedy’s KFC work in the States, a difference Hamilton credits to Ellie Doty, who came on as KFC Canada’s CMO last year. Doty was tasked with revitalizing the brand, which had been flagging against competing fast-food chains. Transactional messaging that focused on price didn’t differentiate KFC.

The company closed 28 Canadian locations between 2012 and 2014, and annual sales fell by $24.8 million over the same period. Meanwhile, McDonald’s Canada plowed $1 billion into renovating its 1,400 stores, and sales rose $200 million from 2012 to 2013.

"If you got a focus group together, they would all say that they loved KFC," Hamilton said. "They had great memories of it from being a kid. But they felt a little bit ashamed to walk into a store and bring it home to their families. With the barrage of health concerns, some legitimate and some not, people were just, ‘Can I really give this to my family?’"

So Doty led the charge to focus on values, rather than value. "The idea of immigrants coming to Canada and finding ways to assimilate their own culture into ours is something I think Canada and Canadians are kind of famous for," Hamilton said. "In one sense, we were trying to embrace that as a Canadian value that lined up with a Colonel Sanders value." (The actual Colonel Sanders lived in Mississauga, Ontario for 15 years.)

Smaller overseas markets often act as testing grounds for ad campaigns in the US, but there aren’t yet any signs that KFC’s American ads will also take a serious turn.

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free